Soul Mate 七月與安生 (2016)

Mainland/Hong Kong

Director: Derek Tsang 曾國祥

Language: Mandarin

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 110 minutes

3/5.  A poorly conceived ending cannot ruin the heart of this tale of love and friendship.

Ever since they met at school, Li Ansheng 李安生 (Zhou Dongyu 周冬雨) and Lin Qiyue 林七月 (Ma Sichun 馬思純) have been best friends. Despite going to different high schools and having very different family lives, nothing has been able to break their bond. Then Qiyue tells Ansheng about the boy she likes, the handsome lacrosse captain Su Jiaming 蘇家明 (Li Chengbin 李程彬). Although Qiyue gets her man, both Ansheng and Jiaming seem drawn together. After almost sharing a kiss after a day out, Ansheng realises that it’s time for her and Qiyue to part. As she travels with her rock-star boyfriend, she continues to exchange letters with Qiyue. At the end of each she writes “Give my regards to Jiaming”…

Soul Mate is one of the latest in a growing number of films worldwide adapted from so-called web fiction (often called “internet literature” in the Chinese context), which includes among its number Fifty Shades of Grey.

Such literature is increasingly influential and widely read. This is particularly true in China, where the stigma attached to the genre is less pronounced than in many Western countries, and reading from a smartphone is commonplace. Soul Mate is adapted from the short story “Qiyue and Ansheng 七月與安生” (also the Chinese name of the movie) written by Annie Baby 安妮寶貝 (this is, unsurprisingly, a pen name!).

As with many examples of web fiction, “Qiyue and Ansheng” is available for free online, which of course is one of the reasons for its popularity.

For this who would like to read it, it’s available here. It is relatively easy reading for non-native speakers such as myself and certainly worth the read.

Director Derek Tsang does a fair job of translating the source material to the big screen. However, unlike a standard book-to-screen adaptation, in which the inevitable question is what to leave out, the writers of Soul Mate have had to work to fill in the gaps of its source material.  This brings its own challenges. Much of the strength of a short story lies in its focused nature; enough to evoke a feeling, a memory, but without the need to construct a world and all of its consistencies. Moreover, stand-alone short stories tend to rely heavily on a reader’s own imagination and interpretation, an element which is inevitably stripped away on film.

Soul Mate succeeds in the most critical elements of translating from page to screen—its atmosphere and emotion—but falls down with some of the bolder changes. Specifically, the entire ending is radically changed in a manner which  changes the perspective of the characters. Ansheng and Qiyue have their fates essentially reversed, but as their characters otherwise develop in line with the original story, the intention of the author seems to have been hastily discarded. Worse still, the closing half hour is a mess. This includes a particularly poor twist consisting of a false flashback in which Qiyue abandons her child to walk around the world “living free”. Whilst the idea that she wanted to live “free” like Ansheng was clear, the actual execution was so ridiculous given her character that it was no surprise when it was revealed as a lie.

Thankfully for viewers, the first three-quarters of Soul Mate are much more effective than its last. The love triangle is thoroughly convincing  in its understated, mostly unseen nature. But Soul Mate is truly driven by the performances of its two leading ladies, who achieved the unheard of feat of jointly winning Best Actress at the 2016 Golden Horse Awards. Such is fitting for a story that is ultimately about two friends Qiyue and Ansheng.

It is unfortunate that Soul Mate cannot maintain its momentum throughout, but as a whole it is still well worth the time spent.

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