Coming of age narratives have been told since humankind invented stories to keep us entertained. As with any genre, some amazing, a few mediocre, and a lot of banal, uninspired tales have been put out there for consumption. So this synopsis for the new Chinese coming-of-age, romantic drama, SoulMate, might sound familiar in some respects. Li Ansheng (Dongyu Zhou) is startled to discover that a newly released book is about her life, specifically her life with her best friend Lin Qiyue (Sichun Ma). This sparks her memories of those times, and as she reads chapter 1 is their first meeting/ childhood, chapter 2 is high school, chapter 3 is college/getting an apartment together, and so on. As the two mature and carve their own paths in the world, they each meet people that initially sweep them off their feet. Will Ansheng’s betrothal to Su Jiaming (Toby Lee) be the thing that fractures their friendship forever? Everything is laid bare as Ansheng continues to read.
“…is startled to discover that a newly released book is about her life…”
Let’s first address the few minor issues with the drama. The meeting between a young Ansheng and a young Qiyue is tonally at odds with everything else in the movie. The students are performing their mandatory military training, in this case, marching, and Ansheng has a squirrel stuffed in her shorts, and it gets loose. She chases after it and runs into Qiuye. This scene has a hint of slapstick that was not present beforehand, nor does it come back at any point. This makes the scene incongruous with everything that comes after.
The nearly two-hour runtime is also an issue, as the movie drags a bit in the middle. There is a sequence that sees the two women sort of swap places in their lives- Ansheng travels and sees the world, after attending a prime university. Qiyue went to a vocational school and is now trying to better herself with higher education. The montage and accompanying voice-over highlighting this change gets repetitive, with some of the odd jobs or studying scenes feeling like they aren’t adding anything new to the characters. Neither one of these problems completely breaks the hypnotic spell of the movie, nor does it undermine the characters in any way.
Director Kwok Cheung Tsang has been acting for over fifteen years but only recently took up directing. He proves to have a fantastic eye and the ability to quietly absorb the audience into the characters’ lives. The cinematography is lyrical and captures their inner lives and turmoil succinctly. When the two get their first flat together and are so giddy, even though they are sleeping on the floor, their enthusiasm and delight leap off the screen. A scene late in the movie which reunites Ansheng and Jiaming is both heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time.
“…a movie is not just the story it presents, but also how it interweaves all the elements of a film…”
Of course, if the blueprint for SoulMate didn’t have such well-developed characters, all the soulful directing wouldn’t have amounted to much. Thankfully, the four writers, Wing-Sum Lam, Yuan Li, Nan Wu, and Yimeng Xu, understand the characters and their plight perfectly. While the initial meeting is odd, everything else they go through from heartbreak to jealousy of each other to love is believable and written with a clear idea of where these people need to wind up by the end. It pays off handsomely by the time the credits roll.
Dongyu Zhou proves herself a remarkable actress, carrying so much of the emotional weight of each scene across her expressive face. Her chemistry with Sichun Ma is marvelous, as the two feel like lifelong friends who know each better than they know themselves. As the unsure, put-upon Jiaming, Toby Lee strikes just the right chord and wrings pathos and empathy out of each scene. The rest of the cast is equally superb.
SoulMate might have a familiar premise, hit some formulaic beats, and have a few pacing issues. But, a movie is not just the story it presents, but also how it interweaves all the elements of a film- cinematography, acting, lighting, editing, dialogue, acting, etc.- into a narrative worth watching. The movie succeeds here in a way few recent films have.
SoulMate (2018) Directed by Kwok Cheung Tsang. Written by Wing-Sum Lam, Yuan Li, Nan Wu, Yimeng Xu. Starring Dongyu Zhou, Sichun Ma, Toby Lee, Gang Cai, Ping Li.