It’s probably safe to say that Sylvia Chang‘s Love Education is the kind of film that is impossible to get made in America at this point in time. A quiet, patiently observed slice-of-life drama just isn’t in the works from US studios; they would turn this kind of material into a broad farce aimed squarely at old folks or, conversely, deliver an indie imagining that would play up the darker elements of the story, a kind of Strindbergian psycho-drama or something. Chang has crafted a dense, novelistic story that has elements of both screwball comedy and classical melodrama, but played at a steady, even tempo. The film begins with a death, as Huiying (Sylvia Chang), her husband Xiaoping (5th generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang), and their daughter Weiwei say goodbye to Huiying’s mother. In short order, the family travels to the countryside, where Huiying’s father is buried, and request to move his body to the city. There, it will be easier to tend to his grave. The problem is that Huiying’s father had another wife in this small country village, part of an arranged marriage which he abandoned decades prior to find work and new love in the city. So begins a battle of wills between Huiying and her father’s first wife, known affectionately as Nanna (Wu Yanshu), who refuses to allow the grave to be moved. Both women set out to legally prove the two different marriages and claim the burial site, bringing them into contact with a bloated bureaucracy and conflicting family histories. Meanwhile, Weiwei is dealing with a boyfriend who may or may not have fathered a child with an ex-girlfriend, and Huiying and Xiaoping have their own crumbling marriage to attend to.
There’s a series of dichotomies at work here – rural vs urban, young vs old, ceremonial tradition vs new media, the dark history of 20th Century China vs 21st Century progress – but it never feels forced.
It’s a complicated, intricate narrative web, one that keeps expanding to include more and more tertiary characters, but Chang keeps things clean and precise, with a kind of simplicity that is all the more impressive for looking effortless. Working with master cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing (frequent collaborator of the great Hou Hsiao-hsien), Chang frames each shot for maximum clarity, the widescreen image teeming with life and movement but also focused on expressions and subtle body language. There’s a series of dichotomies at work here – rural vs urban, young vs old, ceremonial tradition vs new media, the dark history of 20th Century China vs 21st Century progress – but it never feels forced. Chang charts the gradual accumulation of details that make up life, heartbreak and sadness and grieving, yes, but also small bursts of joy, music, burgeoning friendship and reconciliation. Nanna becomes the emotional linchpin of the film, stoic and firm in her resolve, virtually silent, almost never uttering a word, but expressing a lifetime of pain, regret and longing with just a simple look or quivering of a lip. Perhaps most important to its success, Love Education is a deeply humane film, thriving in the grand tradition of Jean Renoir of Edward Yang.
You can currently stream Sylvia Chang’s Love Education on Mubi.