“A Beautiful Life” is the latest outing from “Infernal Affairs” helmer Andrew Lau, and sees rather a change of pace for the Hong Kong director after his recent Donnie Yen vehicle “Legend of the Fist: the Return of Chen Zhen”. This time around he swaps martial arts and explosive action for realistic romantic drama, headlined by stars Shu Qi (“If You Are the One”) and Liu Ye (“Lan Yu”) as a tortured couple struggling to find love in the face of suffering. The interesting supporting cast includes former Olympic diver Tian Liang (also in “The Fantastic Water Babies”), Andrew Lin (“Beginning of the Great Revival” and upcoming actress Feng Danying, and despite being a Mainland production, the film also features the one and only Anthony Wong.
The plot follows Shi Qi as Li Peiru, an estate agent who relocates to Beijing from Hong Kong, hoping to make money to support her family back home. Sadly, things don’t work out as planned, and soon enough she is spending most of her time drinking and entertaining clients, and is embroiled in a doomed affair with her married boss (Andrew Lin). One night after getting drunk at a karaoke bar she runs into policeman Fang Zhendong (Liu Ye), who kindly takes care of her. Instantly connecting, the two hesitantly start a relationship of sorts, which mainly revolves around Zhendong taking care of her despite never getting much back. As life gets increasing tough for Peiru she slowly comes to realise the depth of her feelings for him, though their chances of happiness are threatened by illness.
In many ways, “A Beautiful Life” isn’t really the traditional romantic drama that might have been expected, treading a somewhat unconventional path. Although essentially a pure love story, it follows two unfortunate souls caught up in their distressing lives trying to find solace in each other despite the obstacles fate throws in their way. This in itself represents somewhat of a challenge for Andrew Lau, as although he has dabbled in the genre before, it has generally been with romance of the safer and fluffier kind, such as in his 2009 outing “Look for a Star”, which also featured Shu Qi, along with Andy Lau. Making the film both grounded and glossy, he does a good job of adding the necessary gravitas to the material, mainly as a result of heaping on the tragedy and by making sure that pretty much everything goes wrong for the budding couple. The film really does get quite gloomy during the last act in particular, but although a bit heavy handed is engaging throughout and moving, and makes for a solid tearjerker.
To an extent this is due to its rather unusual characters, with neither of the protagonists being the kind of bland, generic figures that tend to populate romantic dramas of this type, and with their dynamic being a strange, though believable one. Peiru in particular is very different to the expected romantic heroine, being a needy, selfish and materialistic woman who the viewer is initially at least quite hard pushed to sympathise with – it’s very tempting to read into this a rather negative Mainland reflection upon Hong Kong people, something which also rears its head at other points in the film.
Thankfully Shu Qi proves up to the task and performs well in the role, and especially once her sad back story is revealed Peiru and her behaviour does become more understandable. Liu Ye is even better as the fascinating Zhendong, getting across a convincing sense of unconditional love, even though it’s very hard at times to see what he gets from their relationship, and since his life really does get quite hard going. This helps to make their pairing a compelling one, and the film is all the better for the fact that its romance is tempered by sadness.
This kind of ambiguity gives “A Beautiful Life” a lift, and helps it to stand as being more interesting and mature than the average romantic drama. Even though it does get a little over the top at times, it’s definitely one of the better genre films from China of late, and again shows that Andrew Lau is one of the industry’s more versatile and commercially capable directors.
Wai-keung Lau (director) / Cindy Tang (screenplay)
CAST: Qi Shu … Li Peiru
Ye Liu … Fang Zhengdong
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang
Liang Tian … Fang Zhencong
Danying Feng … Xiaowan