The first Shu Qi film of 2004 arrives backed by a horrifying lack of exposure and dismal box office performance.
When the first details about the plot appeared I couldn't help being a little excited. I know next to nothing about the cultural revolution in China, but I find the period fascinating. The idea, to play out a romance against the backdrop of such dramatic events, is solid. It's been done before with great success, take "Titanic" for example, or - if we stay in Asian cinema - "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". But if you wanna pull off a stunt like that, the main story in the foreground has to be strong, the drama in the background has to be detailed and rich.
"The Foliage", however, feels more like a two-bit gangster movie trying to pass itself off as a serious political drama. The love story is trivial and underdeveloped, and the revolution, which is supposed to provide the background, is only mentioned in passing. The film never has the guts to sink its teeth into this deeply conflicted period, which is too bad.
The result is a story which is heading nowhere, seemingly content with exploring the everyday troubles of this random band of merry men and women.
There's a lot of talk about important things - Xing Yu's father being seriously ill, for example - but we never get to see any of it. Even important characters simply die off screen! On the other hand, things that should be discussed, like the revolution, is hardly ever mentioned. The only thing these "revolutionaries" care to talk about, is food and beating up that other gang they met at the market.
But the worst thing happens after 75 minutes. Suddenly the film jumps forward in time "A few years", as the caption reads. Less than 15 minutes later the film jumps forward again, to the present day (29 years after the main events).
Why it does this and what happens, I won't reveal, as it would spoil important parts of the film. Instead let me just complain. Jumping in time in this kind of story, never works. You lose touch with the characters and it pulls you out of the film. Not only that, but the film does a 180 on several event seemingly forgetting what happened during the first hour. I know time heals all wounds, but this is borderline ridiculous. Again, I hesitate to reveal more details, to avoid spoilers.
This is an odd choice for Shu Qi. The film clearly wants to be big and important, but it just doesn't have the means. Perhaps she took on this role in a desperate bid to be taken more seriously as an actress. If that's the case, she failed.
Shu Qi is sweet and gentle in this film, there's no doubt about that. But she spends most of the time looking at her feet, or gazing into the distance. She's pretty as hell when she does it, but it's a far cry from what she's capable of and it's just not good enough.
The relationship between Xing Yu and Sie Mong is also problematic. To be blunt, I just don't buy it. Love at first sight is okay for a romantic film, but a serious drama needs more. And the setup that we're asked to accept here is ludicrous.
Why do they fall for each other? Sie Mong helps her get on the bus. He takes one look at her, tells her she's beautiful, and then what...? She spends the rest of her life yearning for him? Is she really that easy? Like I said, I just don't buy it.
Adding to this problem is the fact that it's never clear that Ding Guo and Xing Yu have a relationship, much less that they are lovers. Based on their first couple of encounters I would say that they were distant acquaintances. But then suddenly the film wants us to believe that Xing Yu is torn between her relationships with these two men. What relationships!?
"The Foliage" is not an expensive film. It doesn't exactly look cheap, just... simple. There's nothing wrong with that. It's also shot in a very simple way, no exaggerated Hong Kong photography here, and that suits the story very well. The lush green palette of the forrest speaks for itself, as does the earth tones of the clothes and huts. All very realistic, plausible and easy on the eyes.
Xing Yu is trying to get away from the revolution so she can get home and take care of her father, and then her world is thrown into turmoil when she runs into a guy who could potentially be the love of her life... stop right there! That's good drama! There's the conflict between doing what's right for others, and doing what's right for yourself. There's "the small picture" versus "the big picture". There's plenty of potential there. It should work, but it doesn't.
"The Foliage" suffers from underdeveloped characters, an overly simple background and a general lack of drive and passion.
I wouldn't be so hard on this film if it didn't star Shu Qi. If it were any other actress I wouldn't even be writing these words. In fact, I probably would have stopped watching the film after about 30 minutes.