It will take a dedicated fan of romance novels to succumb to the schmaltz of Beautiful Voyage, a step back for director Zhang Jiarui (Distant Thunder, White Wedding).
The fact that he covered four major roles on the film – producer, director, screenwriter and editor – is probably an indication that more help, particularly in the editing department, might have eliminated some awkwardness in the storytelling.
As is, it looked mighty frail as the opening night film of the Shanghai International Film Festival, a responsibility it had to cover single-handedly when the advertised “double bill” with its co-opening nighter The Eight Hundred failed to materialize.
Like Zhang’s award-winning 2006 drama The Road, which covered some 50 years of history and politics in China in a moving love story, Beautiful Voyage is structured around an undying love story that continually shifts its timeframe.
With some narrative confusion, it attempts to compare the innocent patriotism of the past – in this case, the 1980’s, when China was putting the Cultural Revolution behind it to build a modern socialist power – with the aimless personal dissatisfaction of the present. An interesting theme, had it only played out better.
Sulky, chain-smoking, hard-drinking Amy (Yao Di) is a modern girl in the midst of an existential crisis. She is saved from suicide by a mysterious young man who grabs her just as she is jumping off a bridge. She is not grateful.
Tao (Song Ningfeng) is a mystery man whose sudden appearance in Amy’s life is explained only in the last reel. But he seems to launch her on a search to find out what happened to her mother, LanQing (also played by Yao), who disappeared after the death of her lover Guan Yong (Song in another double role.)
United by Zhou Jiaojiao’s loud, sentimental music score and some spectacular location shooting on a river that winds through deep mountain gorges, the twin stories of Amy’s search and her parents’ romance awkwardly unfold.
In the early 1980s, LanQing and Guan Yong were fresh-faced students in shipping school, idealistic and innocent to a fault. Filmed with the disarming simplicity of the period, there is no irony in the portrait of heroic Chinese youth preparing themselves to work for the advancement of their country.
They make a foursome with their friends Hong Bing and the scheming Shu Ja, with the complication that Hong Bing is in love with LanQing, too.
Several years later, we find the characters working in a signaling station on the river, where they control traffic with a system of binoculars and big pointing arrows. Flash to a dark and stormy night on the river, and a terrible accident in which Capt. Guan Yong’s small boat is heading on a collision course with a very large passenger vessel.
Who has neglected to raise the stop signal? The third act ties up a lot of loose ends in a satisfying way, then goes on to add several more unnecessary and increasingly sugary endings involving a ghost, a Buddhist monk and a maple leaf.
Yao and Song make a fetching pair, but the enthusiasm, naivete and self-sacrifice of LanQing and Guan Yong are simply old movie conventions and far from ringing true. The more interesting characters are the lovesick Hong Bing and the villainess Shu Ja, who are at least more vivid and less predictable.
One of the few scenes that can be called emotionally convincing involves Hong Bing as an old man hysterically defending the rusty “hero’s ship” that was salvaged after Guan Yong’s collision. This moment of veracity is immediately turned into an ideological lesson, unfortunately.
Cast: Yao Di, Song Ningfeng, Xia Zitong, Peng Ziyang, Tao Ran
Production company: Beijing Ruitang Film and Television Co.
Director, screenwriter, producer, editor: Zhang Jiarui
Director of photography: He Shan
Production designer: Zhang Jianyi
Music: Zhou Jiaojiao
Venue: Shanghai International Film and TV Festival (opening film)