Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Knot, The 云水谣 (2006)

The return of the triple-hanky weepie!

Once upon a time, Taiwanese author Qiong Yao was the bedside companion of many a young and impressionable girl. In the 1960s and 70s, her novels, together with San Mao’s diaries, introduced individualism and the Romantic sensibility to youths in the Chinese world. Since the 1990s, Qiong Yao’s books have been adapted into television serials on Taiwanese television, mostly starring Chin Han as the leading man, and the pretty girl du jour as his ill-fated, often separated love interest. One might argue that the author’s novels are very formulaic and dripping with saccharine sentimentality and melodrama, but one would never make this argument within the earshot of one’s female relations.

At first glance, The Knot comes across as a movie that could have been based off one of Qiong Yao’s novels. There’s the literary naming of the central protagonists: Qiu Shui and Bi Yu. He’s the poor village boy made good as a medical student in the city, who falls in love with the pretty daughter of a wealthy household which hires him as an English tutor. The obstacles are few, but impressive: despite the tacit approval of the father (played by Chin Han!), the mother is less enthused with the growing romantic undertones of her daughter’s friendship to the young man, who is himself a radical left-wing student activist, a rather dangerous vocation in a 1940s Taiwan administered under martial law by the Kuomintang dictatorship. Of course they end up marrying each other in secret, and of course they are separated quite unwillingly by fate and circumstance.

If this were a Qiong Yao weepie, though, the story would centre on the lovers pining for each other through the years, but here, The Knot reinvigorates the genre by giving the lovers a second act: both are pursued by ardent admirers who aren’t about to give up, and who are willing to live with the fact that Qiu Shui and Bi Yu will never place them in first position within their hearts. It’s this well-fleshed and developed storyline that moves the almost trite first act forward by leaps and bounds, rounds up the characters into ones that you’d actually care about, and sets up the movie properly for its inevitable melodramatic twist. Given how well and maturely this story was told, I found it impossible to make fun of the melodrama in the end.

Story-wise, aside from its mature writing, the movie also features an incredible soundtrack of Taiwanese and Tibetan folk songs, as well as Korean dances and Chinese revolutionary choruses. It has something to do with the wanderings of the separated lovers, but I’ll admit I was quite engrossed with the authenticity of the period reproductions – they didn’t just bother about the sets (every Taiwanese tearjerker could do that), but they even went to the extent of showcasing folk music every chance they could.

I’m sure there’s something snarky that could be said about a love story set in Taiwan, China, Korea and Tibet – this could be a Peach Blossom Land, or that this is just a very subtly political romantic drama that’s set in all 4 corners of Greater China. But I’m very pleased with how well done the movie is, and how it adheres and recreates a great movie genre that I’d like to recommend all romantic hearts in need of hankies to watch this movie.

First published at incinemas on 14 December 2006

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