Chinese singer and actress Rene Liu's directorial debut Us and Them is a film that's all about missed opportunities. The film takes a deep and sensitive look at the fragile nature of human relationships under the pressures of the modern world, and reminds us that nurturing those relationships is far more important than reaching tangible goals.
The film tells the story of two individuals from a small town in China who are trying to making it big in Beijing " the ambitious and soft-spoken Jianqing and the dreamy and vivacious Xiaoxiao. The two meet on a train during the busy Spring Festival travel season, and instantly develop a friendship. Over the years, Jianqing and Xiaoxiao form a deep bond, as the former helps his friend navigate through several relationships that always seem to leave her with a broken heart. The two finally find love and solace in each other's arms, only to realise what they had been missing all these years. The two seem to be happy, but not for long, as the struggle of the ruthless life in a big city like Beijing gets to them and threatens to pull them apart. Jianqing had seemed to be the more level-headed of the two, but as it turns out, it is Xiaoxiao who is the more mature and patient one. The two soon begin to fall apart and a time comes when Xiaoxiao leaves. After many years, on the eve of the Chinese new year, they meet again, when the flight they are on gets cancelled due to bad weather, and circumstances force them to share a hotel room. Confined to the room, they fondly reminisce about the good old days, and wonder how things turned out the way they did.
While it is undeniably true that Us and Them is a beautifully crafted romantic film, it is also true that it offers little that is new. The film's storyline follows a predictable path " nothing we haven't seen before " making us wonder along with Xiaoxiao herself " 'why can't a story be happy from the beginning to the end?' But having said that, I must also haste to add that the execution of the story does not leave you with a sense of boredom. And much of the credit for this goes to the performances.
Boran Jing plays the calculating and reticent young boy from a small town with perfection. Watch his frustration as one by one, all his friends who had come to the city with him abandon him and head back to their hometown to settle down there, leaving their dream of someday developing a video game unfulfilled. Jianqing struggles on alone, and just when he seems to be giving up, Xiaoxiao comes into his life. As he struggles to deal with his feelings for her, the girl is happily hopping in and out of relationships, relying on Jianqing to clean up the mess after. But like a good friend, Jianqing takes it in his stride, and is always there for the immature and pesky little brat.
Dongyu Zhou slips into the shoes (very ugly ones, as her friend points out in the film!) of the bubbly and cheerful young Xiaoxiao with supreme ease and grace. Towards the beginning of the film, she comes across as someone who has absolutely no idea where she is headed. She is impetuous, she is a hopeless romantic and she is starry-eyed. But as the years go by, we see her mature faster than Jianqing does. She seems to come to terms with reality much sooner than her lover, and is clearly the saner, bolder, more intelligent and significantly more caring of the two. There are moments when you can't help feeling sorry for her, and for everything that she has to go through. The systematic destruction of her innocence is tragic, to say the least.
But in my favourite performance from the film, it is Tian Zhuangzhuang who shines forth, as Jianqing's father. The aged gentleman walks around the kitchen of his tiny small-town restaurant with unhurried pace, making food for the community " entertaining them, feeding them. But you can see that he is worried about the only child he has " a boy who has left the nest the moment he has learned to fly. In what is perhaps the most beautiful scene from the film, he narrates an incident around a video game to his son's girlfriend and explains how " he felt " it must have fuelled his unhealthy obsession with a career that had no future. It is a tender scene, performed to perfection, and it beautifully succeeds in capturing the old man's fears and worries for the son he gets to meet only once a year.
But more than the relationship between the son and the father, it is the fond relationship that the father has developed with his son's lover that is bound to move you the most. The wisdom of the elder, and his advice to his son's estranged lover is the highlight of the film for me. It is the sort of writing, the kind of performance that one hopes to see in a film, and it literally saves the film from being just another love story, elevating it to a whole new level altogether.
The film is also beautifully scored, and the songs come in at the right places. The background music sets the right mood, aptly highlighting the emotions played out on screen. The writing is quite good, but could have been better, had the script been more 'compact' at places. Veteran cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing gives the film a breathtakingly beautiful look. It would be difficult to call out any one scene that looks stunning " simply because there are so many. The snow-swept highways, the autumn sunlight sliding off the golden leaves of the trees, the dark and grungy rooms of the urban ghetto " everything has been shot with superlative technical prowess.
Telling the story of the two lovers in two different timelines, Us and Them shows us how small mistakes can ruin perfectly healthy relationships that could have bloomed into something beautiful. It also shows us the futile nature of a life that has everything for comfort " except love.
Us and Them is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here: