The first Chinese AIDS themed film arrives with “Love for Life”, directed by cinematographer Gu Changwei, who previously helmed the acclaimed “And the Spring Comes” and “Peacock”, here handing over camera duties to the always interesting Christopher Doyle. Tackling what was previously a taboo subject, the film boasts an impressive all star cast, headlined by Zhang Ziyi and Aaron Kwok as an AIDS infected rural couple, and with support from Jiang Wenli (“Farewell My Concubine”), Pu Cunxin (“Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon”), and Wang Baoqiang (“Mr. Tree”), plus an appearance from director Jiang Wen (Feng Xiaogang and Lu Chuan apparently also shot cameos which failed to make the final cut).
The film is set in the 1990s in a rural Chinese village, many of whose inhabitants have tragically been infected with HIV after selling their blood on the black market to shady entrepreneur Qiquan (Pu Cunxin). Ignorant of the true nature of the disease and treating it as some kind of fever, the afflicted are rounded up by his guilt stricken father, village elder Lao Zhuzhu, and taken to live in isolation in the now deserted schoolhouse, among their number his other son Deyi (Aaron Kwok), who leaves behind his wife and child. Trying to continue an existence of sorts, Deyi begins a relationship with fellow sufferer Qinqin (Zhang Ziyi), who comes to live in the commune after being thrown out by her husband. Facing up to prejudice and moral judgement, the two attempt to find joy in each others arms, knowing that their days are numbered.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its subject matter, apparently based on a real case, “Love for Life” is a film with a difficult production history, having been cut by around 50 minutes and seriously re-edited prior to release. As a direct consequence, it’s uneven in places and fairly leaps around, some scenes cutting off abruptly and leaving the viewer unsure of what was going on. More seriously, much of the trimming seems to have been done to the back story of the main characters and to the not-unimportant issue of how they became infected, robbing the film not only of coherence, but of its ability to offer much in the way of social commentary, as was clearly its original intent.
What remains is a film quite different to expectations, and instead of a serious and gloomy piece of politically charged melodrama, “Love for Life” plays out mainly as an eccentric rural comedy narrated by a dead young boy who interrupts the proceedings every once in a while with pearls of philosophical wisdom. The film certainly does have its moments of weirdness, going out of its way to include some earthy bumpkin comedy, revolving around subplots about missing jackets and the chasing of livestock (the film wins points for actually including a scene of a woman riding an out of control pig). Even more glaring is its decision to completely misrepresent the AIDS virus, with characters suddenly dropping dead without showing any symptoms whatsoever.
However, although this may well sound risible, in its own way the film actually works quite well, and there’s certainly something to be said for it not being a torturously weepy melodrama – a charitable reading might suggest that the almost light-hearted approach realistically reflects the uneducated characters having no idea of what is happening to them, still hoping for a cure and believing trustingly that they will somehow be saved. The strangely cheerful mood which results sits comfortably with the film’s non-heavy handed take on prejudice, depicting its protagonists as being treated with disdain but reacting for the most part with laughter. This again is reasonably effective, and the film avoids the kind of overly obvious moralising which might have been anticipated.
The relationship between Deyi and Qinqin is similarly an unconventional one, with the two wasting little time with courtship and quickly falling into bed, the only drama coming from the question as to whether their respective spouses will allow them to get divorced. Aside from their frankly disturbing calling each other mother and father (best not to read too much into it), their coupling comes across as disarmingly genuine despite its lack of any context or history, and as two people really just trying to make the best of a terrible situation. Through this, both Deyi and Qinqin make for sympathetic and likeable figures, with Aaron Kwok on amusingly twitchy form and Zhang Ziyi taking a respectable stab at a role which require more than her usual pouting – thought it is worth noting that the film does pack in a great many gratuitous shots of her in a state of semi undress and close-ups of certain parts of her anatomy.
It’s these, along with the other odd aspects of “Love for Life” which suggest that it might not have been a different beast entirely, even if director Gu Changwei had been allowed to stick to his guns, and it’s very hard indeed to imagine it as a controversial piece of social commentary or political antagonism, especially given the presence of the stars and the obvious investment which went into the production. As such, it’s a film which should be appreciated for what it is, an important, consciousness raising effort which deserves attention both for being the first mainstream commercial Chinese film to address the issue of AIDS, and for doing so in such an unexpectedly down to earth manner. Although not wholly successful, the film is all the more watchable and interesting for its many eccentricities, and is certainly more entertaining than the morose sermon it might have been – for anyone wishing to explore further, it’s worth mentioning that the film has a companion volume in the documentary “Together”, directed by Zhao Liang during its shooting and featuring a more in-depth look at the powerful subject.
Changwei Gu (director) / Changwei Gu (screenplay)
CAST: Ziyi Zhang