Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Viva La Vida

I rather liked the previous two films by writer/director Han Yan which made it to Boston without quite realizing that they were kind of unrepresentative of his work. Consider:

  • First Time (2012) - A girl with neuromuscular disease dreams of being a ballet dancer, meets a boy who wants to sing rock & roll
  • Go Away Mr. Tumor (2015) - A woman gets a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, has flights of fantasy that sometimes involve her handsome doctor
  • Animal World (2018) - Gambler gets drawn into the world of high-stakes rock-paper-scissors; producers spring for Michael Douglas as the mysterious American loan shark
  • A LIttle Red Flower (2020) - Two families each losing a member to cancer
  • Love Never Ends (2023) - Two elderly lovers at the end of their lives (played Danvers, but I couldn't make it out there)
  • Viva La Vida (2024) - Woman with kidney disease considers marrying a man with brain cancer (but healthy kidneys)
The two with review links are ones I've seen, and it's worth noting that Go Away has a bunch of big, effects-driven fantasies, and in fact the trailer/posters lead with the main character's zombie-movie fantasies but with big letters saying "THIS IS NOT A ZOMBIE MOVIE", which is kind of clever advertising and certainly leaves the impression that he's a big spectacle guy doing a mainstream comedy around cancer treatment, but apparently, he's a guy who makes movies about cancer and death who made a couple of crowd-pleasers. Animal World, obviously, is something else entirely, but there is a comatose mother and hospital bills for motivation.

That's kind of a weird specialty, although maybe not that much more than Han Han's Pegasus movies that are clearly informed by his interest in racing. What's kind of interesting is that Han Yan seems to have done enough of these or immersed himself in it that I get a feeling of confidence and authenticity that I don't necessarily see from a lot of other movie that are built around medical crises; in this case, particularly, Lin Min can rattle off a lot of symptoms and effects almost casually and it hits a good spot between "the filmmakers have done their research and kind of find all this stuff fascinating" and "people living with this sort of illness master what they need to know". It's maybe not quite George Miller making Lorenzo's Oil more engrossing than it has any right to be because he's a doctor who understands it, but it's not far off.

So, yeah, a lot of cancer and other illness in his movies. And, apparently, a lot of medical procedures costing a lot of money, and, geez, China, I thought you were communist! I mean, what's socialism even for if you're still going to have the same sort of medical bankruptcies we have in America?

Wo men yi qi yao tai yang (Viva la Vida)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 April 2024 in AMC Causeway #10 (first-run, DCP)

Viva la Vida makes its way to the USA at right about the same time as a film called Someone Like You is released, and they likely don't have much in common other than young people brought together through medicine in ways one might find questionable, but I find it kind of interesting that the one from the other side of the world grabbed my interest and the one closer to home seemed to icky to touch. Maybe if iI'd seen a trailer for this rather than simply buying a ticket based on some familiarity with the director, it would have pushed me away. Or maybe not - writer/director Han Yan is, if nothing else, keenly aware of how off-puttingly selfish the premise may seem and redirects it almost immediately.

Lin Min (Li Gengxi) is a couple months from turning 25 and at least a few years into dealing with the kidney condition uremia, which requires obsessive monitoring of her intake of food and water and regular dialysis, also leading her and her family to move into a Changsha neighborhood that has easy access to three hospitals in case a transplant becomes available (the waiting list is generally eight or nine years) or she needs emergency care because her precautions are not enough. One desperate night, she records a video to be sent to a cancer discussion group, saying she is willing to not just marry a terminal patient with the appropriate compatibility factors, but commit to taking care of their family after they die, in return for a donated kidney. Ashamed, she recalls the video almost immediately, but it has already been seen by Luu Tu (Peng Yuchang), an eccentric young man whose glioblastoma occasionally causes him to pass out and whose persistence can sometimes feel like stalking.

There's a certain sort of relief when a romance with a premise that would raise red flags not only acknowledges but straight-up waves them, as happens here: Not only does Lin Min realize just how messed-up what she is doing right away, but Han Yan also makes sure to point out that this whole scheme wouldn't actually work, that there are laws and regulations in place to prevent this sort of manipulation of the transplant process. Han takes the potential for stalking fairly seriously, as well, although he shows a pretty deft hand for when it's time to move past that as the main thing driving the story. He also seems to have a solid handle on the medical issues and how to integrate them into the story (he has done a surprising number of films built around people being sick or dying in his career, so it figures); all in all, it's good work at showing you can tell a story with some drama without exaggerating unduly.

It does turn rather quickly, but, hey, Luu Tu doesn't just help Lin Min move, but does it for her, and, yeah, that would change my outlook in a pretty big hurry! Han is frequently not particularly subtle; and while in some cases it's because frustration is not a subtle emotion, sometimes you can see the hammer, as with a scene where Lin Min is riding a bus and hearing some kid doing English lessons that includes how they live in a perfect city as she's dealing with a gentrification eviction on top of her health issues. And yet, there's a surprisingly good romantic comedy underneath all that, with Luu Tu's casual weirdness a good complement to Lin Min's determination, and the characters around them filling useful niches in the story. It's heightened and higher-stakes than is typical, but the requisite jokes and chemistry are there.

A lot hinges on Li Gengxi being a solid young actress to build the movie around; she spends much of the film frustrated and annoyed but still vital, able to sell the audience on her being an ordinary young woman in a lot of ways even after being introduced with a lot of heavy material. She, perhaps unusually, spends enough of the movie without apparent makeup to make scenes like her friend's wedding a bit jarring, and there's something similarly grounded about the way she shows Lin Min as used to all this without a lot of chatter. Peng Yuchang gives Luu Tu a certain scrappy dumb-guy charm without making him pitiful or naive.

Amusingly, when the film closes with videos of the real Lin Min and Luu Tu (the opening titles refer to a short documentary as the basis, though I can't find a trace of it on the English-language web), they seem a bit more upbeat and uncomplicated than the characters in the movie, though those images are probably catching them at their best. As funny a film as it frequently is, the last poke to remind the audience that this is not just about desperation is appreciated.

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