Love Education (Xiang ai xiang qin)

China/Taiwan (2017) Dir. Sylvia Chang

As time moves on and social attitudes change, some old traditions become redundant and more often than not, illogical to modern thinking, and with the separation between rural and metropolitan life, there will be a clash of opinions about this. Then again, not every philosophical division is geographical, it is also generational.

Soon to retire teacher Qiu Huiying (Sylvia Chang) watches her elderly mother pass away in hospital with husband Yin Xiaoping (Tian Zhuangzhuang) and adult daughter Weiwei (Lang Yueting) also present. However, Huiying wants to bury her mother’s ashes with her father Yue Zifu who was buried in the country with his first wife Nanna (Wu Yanshu), who he left after a year of marriage.

Believing herself Zifu’s true wife, Nanna refuses to let Huiying move his body to the city beginning a war of wills between them. Meanwhile, tabloid TV reporter Weiwei smells a hot story and tries to ingratiate herself with Nanna to get her side of it, and ends up questioning her relationship with Huiying and her need to move on with her own life and live with her musician boyfriend Da (Song Ning).

Taiwanese actress-director Sylvia Chang presents a thematic, perhaps spiritual successor to her 2004 film 20-30-40 about three women each at those ages with Love Education, the generational gaps being slightly wider here. Like many films in recent years, Chang looks at social changes in China whilst reflecting on the need to grab an opportunity when it comes lest you let it pass you by.

Driving this narrative is the clash between Huiying and Nanna, a complex moral issue in which the subject of “rights” is clouded by legal definitions and selfish wants. Huiying is adamant her mother’s dying words were that she wants to be buried with her husband, although only Huiying heard this final whisper so the veracity of this claim is open to dispute. And since Huiying is no shrinking violet and the dominant force in the family, red flags start appearing.

In an admirable if deluded way, Nanna remained oddly loyal to her late husband, never once questioning why he never came back or went after him. Even the letters he sent home were formal and showed no sign of affection, as this was an arranged marriage. This doesn’t excuse Zifu from committing bigamy, which we assume he never mentioned to Huiying’s mother, making his burial in the country rather odd, which again we are left to assume is how Huiying and the others knew about Nanna.

Regardless, Nanna is happy to have Zifu home and will protect his grave with her body and soul – literally throwing herself on the dirty mound and erecting a fence for further defence. This forces Huiying to go the legal route but she needs numerous documents to appease the pen pushers. The marriage certificate is the hardest as records from before 1978 were thrown away and Huiying’s parents were married in 1953.

Nanna is even worse off with no official papers to confirm her union with Zifu, putting her in the position as a moral claimant as Huiying edges closer to being a legal one. As frustrating the buck passing of the bureaucrats is, the idea the Communist party would wilfully throw out old records because they had no room for them in pre-computer days is Chang commenting on the notion old things can be easily discarded, be it documents or people.

Huiying’s myopia in fighting this case is creating stress with her placid driving instructor husband Xiaoping who she accuses of not supporting her, and with Weiwei over her wanting to move out and live independently with boyfriend Da, who she hasn’t told her about for fear she will look down on him. When Weiwei stays with Nanna to get an interview, she learns about regrets and the futility of stasis, fuelling her need to leave home.

Chang covers quite a lot of issues in this film, though it might not appear so apparent at first with the central feud over Zifu’s grave being established as the central plot. But as the subplots and skeins gradually make their presence known, the initial randomness of these situations subsides and gradually coalesce by the third act, each one having made its point individually first.

Embracing a fusion of light comedy with emotive drama, the rhythms and beats of this film take on a life of their own, not really settling down until the halfway mark once all the plot points have been introduced. However, this is echoed by how the characters are perceived, our loyalty and opinion to each one changing over time – for example, Weiwei is a whiney brat in the beginning; by the end we want to cuddle her.

Vitally, we are also forced to look at Huiying and Nanna differently as the film progresses too. At first, one is a filial daughter wanting to do right by her mother’s (alleged) last wish, the other is a stubborn old country hick tied to the brief memory of a man who had no time for her. It’s a culture clash that brings out the worst in both but the exploration crucially encourages questions about legality vs. morality.

Wearing three hats here – actor, co-writer, and director – Sylvia Chang avoids spreading herself too thin by keeping the direction simple to focus on her performance, which is typically solid. Lang Yueting grows nicely and believably as Weiwei whilst it is difficult not to be moved by Wu Yanshu as Nanna, leaving Tian Zhuangzhuang to anchor the whole thing as the passive male presence.

Love Education is presented in such a glossy fashion that it could be mistaken for your average ensemble melodrama, but the trenchant bite in the writing, the strength of the cast, and the points its raises prevent this from slipping into flaccid mediocrity. It may take a second viewing to catch every detail it covers but this is a smarter film than it looks.

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