Famous for cunningly wrought crime stories — his Infernal Affairs series begat Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed — the Hong Kong director Andrew Lau scouts new territory, both emotional and geographical, in the Beijing-set melodrama A Beautiful Life. He successfully balances satire and sentimentality in the first half, but loses his bearings in the sappier second part.
Infernal Affairs was a swift-moving tale of corrupt cops and Hong Kong triads; Lau's Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, made in 2010 but just released in the U.S. last month, combined kung fu brawls with military battles on both the Western and Eastern fronts. The director slows down for A Beautiful Life, with longer takes and less frantic editing. On the plus side, this gives Taiwanese beauty Shu Qi the space to develop her sweet-and-sour character, a buoyant but volatile Hong Kong hustler who has moved to Beijing to get rich in real estate. But the calmer pace also allows too much time for the story's sudsier developments.
In the opening sequence, Peiru (Qi) and Zhendong (Postman in the Mountains star Liu Ye) meet not-so-cute: Roaring drunk at an upscale karaoke joint, she staggers into the men's room and vomits on him. He ends up carrying her home.
Zhendong is an exemplary policeman who just can't refuse to help the public, even when that means a grasping, self-centered woman who asks him to make dumplings for her (married) boyfriend — and then introduces Zhendong as the plumber when the lover arrives early.
Long divorced after a short marriage, Zhendong is experienced at taking care of people: His autistic younger brother, who wears a lion suit to work as a street pitchman, needs regular supervision. When the brother decides to marry his mute girlfriend, the cop promises to look after both of them.
Peiru, however, pushes Zhendong to his limits. Her rages and breakdowns, only sometimes stoked by alcohol, are exhausting. Eventually, she retreats to Hong Kong, skipping out on a major loan from Zhendong. Realizing that she actually loves the man she has been exploiting, she returns to Beijing only to find that Zhendong is not as capable as before, and the two swap their previous roles.
That's not such a bad idea, but the movie's second half is buried under a heap of tear-jerking, heartwarming or simply redundant events. No movie needs, for example, multiple brain injuries to the same character.
The film does work as a showcase for Qi, in another of her force-of-nature roles. (See also Millennium Mambo or Three Times.) Her Peiru is exasperating yet charming, as tender as she is manipulative. Qi also plays drunk quite convincingly.
A Beautiful Life is hardly the only Chinese-language film to play off the culture clash between Hong Kong and the mainland. But the movie is among the first to suggest that the balance of power has shifted north. Economic migrants now travel from Hong Kong to Beijing to make their fortunes, and are regarded with suspicion by their new neighbors.
Thus Peiru's greed and narcissism are depicted as typical of people from the former British colony. After she becomes more giving, Zhendong's blind-musician pal (ubiquitous HK character actor Anthony Wong) delivers this toast: "I didn't expect a girl from Hong Kong to be so loyal."
The fact that Lau now has a Beijing office, and is pursuing opportunities on the mainland, is probably just a coincidence.