A Film a Week - Love Song 1980 / Lian Qu 1980

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

The Chinese filmmaker Mei Feng is best known as the regular screenwriter for Ye Lou’s films, including “Summer Palace” (2006), Cannes title “Spring Fever” (for which Mei won the Best Screenplay award) and, most recently, “The Shadow Play” (2018). His directorial debut “Mr. No Problem” (2016) premiered at Tokyo International Film Festival and toured across the East- and South-East Asia afterwards. Mei’s second directorial effort, “Love Song 1980”, also premiered at Tokyo, while its European premiere took place at the competition of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

Love Song 1980” could be accurately described as an unofficial prequel to Mei’s debut screenwriting work, “Summer Palace”, dealing with the milieu of the students in Beijing during the times of a great change and paradigm change that occurred in the 80s. While the plot of “Summer Palace” takes place in the year of Tienanmen, “Love Song 1980” is situated at the beginning of the decade and the economic and political reforms. The context of those, however, stays in the background of the film, and surfaces only in details like production- and costume design, while there are only discreet hints in the dialogue. In its core, it is a love story and a story of a prolonged coming of age and actually an adaptation of Yu Xiaodan’s novel "The Lover in 1980".

When the story opens, in 1979, we have a duo of brothers, Zhengwu and Zhengwen (Li Xian, the star of Wen Song’s “The Enigma of Arrival”). Zhengwu is a model student and clearly their mother’s favourite, while Zhengwen lives in his brother’s shadow. Once Zhengwen meets his brother’s girlfriend, Mao Zhen (Jessie Li, glimpsed in films like Philip Yung’s “Port of Call” and Ann Hui’s “Our Time Will Come”), his world turns upside down. Zhen is an amicable, energetic and free-spirited, which is quite an opposite of both of the brother’s traits, Zhengwu’s properness and Zhengwen’s apparent lack of the driving force in life.

When Zhengwu accidentally drowns in the lake, his brother enrols at the same university where he bumps onto Zhen, which marks the start of a complicated love story, marked by the differences between the two regarding the character traits, past experiences and future ambitions. The other thing that serves as the obstacle in their relationship is a veil of mystery surrounding Zhengwu’s death and the fact that Zhen might had contributed to it indirectly. While the fascination and the disappointment and the sense of being offended take turns in dictating their feelings, they go on with their lives, meeting friends, studying, dropping out, searching for the spirituality and the meaning of life, trying new relationships, hurting people, being hurt and, simply put, living the life.

Love Song 1980” is also the homage for the mentioned decade on the filmmaking level. Mei opts for a boxy aspect ratio of 4:3 that also has a dramaturgical function of creating the sense of the characters’ anxieties and the sense of being stuck while experiencing the lust for life. Zhu Jingjing’s cinematography in static or very controlled steadicam shots suits the film perfectly, while some additional beauty can be found in the drastic differences with the bright exteriors and dimly lit interiors. The music, usually consisting of the popular songs from back then is a noteworthy addition to the film’s rich, layered texture.

Along with the gripping storytelling, the acting is the high point of the film. There is more than just a dash of everyman in the Li Xian’s interpretation of Zhengweng that could have been seen in some of the finest European actors of the past (for instance, Marcello Mastroianni), while Jessie Li plays Zhen’s mystery, fragility and the notion of being drunk by life with zest and easiness. The performance of the supporting actors are also on the level with the leads, serving as the perfectly modelled pieces in a puzzle of love, friendship and life and making “Love Song 1980” a worthwhile watch for the fans of the Chinese mainstream art house cinema.

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