‘A Complicated Story’: Film Review |
Micah Sevilla 2017
February 7, 2017
With a college degree nearly at hand and a budding romance with a loyal and sacrificial lover, Liu Yazi, a young independent woman from Mainland China, could have just yielded to her pre-programmed course of life- graduating from college and pursuing a career at the metropolitan city of Hong Kong, or maybe even building her own family at the fast-paced city full of angst and diverse, liberated views- a dreamy city that entertained thousands of possibilities, including absurd ones, such as surrogacy; but due to a sudden need to suffice her brother’s medical surgery, the average and the so-called peaceful life of Liu Yazi turns into one roller-coaster ride, where she’s whisked away to a private villa to live in seclusion and be a surrogate mother for an elite couple.
Just when she thought everything is falling into place, the truth came crashing upon her, pushing her forth to her toughest decision yet– when the client, celebrity Tracy Ty, terminates the contract and forces Yazi to abort the child in her womb. In her zeal to keep the baby, Yazi took a different turn that will drastically change her life forever- as she runs away and escapes from her benefactors in order to keep the baby alive. That big decision she’s made- which is a make or break for her and her newfound life in the city- spiraled into a whirlpool of complicated chaos that tested her inner strength and convictions, and places her in all sorts of uncomfortable and frustrating situations she’s not prepared for.
Setting at Mainland China and Hong Kong, Kiwi Chow’s debut film not only explores the issue of surrogate motherhood and abortion, but also extends beyond the underlying theme, exposing the very authentic roots of resorting to it, such as monetary issues, secret frustrations, loveless marriage, and pedestal views on family building. Director Chow’s exquisite take on the Yi-Shu based novel stayed true to itself, weaving the characters’ stories in the most genuine way possible, with remarkable cinematic techniques and controversial, cliff-hanging elements in the script that made the movie elevate to an effortless, unpredictable note. As a completely different storyline was devised by writer Kei Shu and the ever hands-on director, Kiwi Chow, the movie is expected to give a brand new paradigm to the story as compared to the book, but Zhang Yin’s cinematographic skills proved resilient to the pressure, and was able to unfold the story like a revelation, a gravitating story that never runs out of surprises and poses new questions among the audience from time to time, while presenting the story in the most natural pace and setting, with instrumental background music and superficial digital effects kept to a minimum.
The first Kiwi-Chow film took on the melodramatic plot to a strong start, picking a suspenseful kind of scene under a dark, bluish lighting to kick it off- a startled man coming in from a dark corner, carefully creeping his way to a door and slowly opening it, with the diegestic sound of a crying baby resounding on the background while the door creaks open. Upon opening of the door, a woman lies in bed- and a shift to the white lights of the hospital ward slowly took over, eventually turning over the focal point of the film from the man to the unconscious woman, who turned out to be Liu Yazi, the film’s main protagonist. From that first scene that sparks up any spectator’s attention, comes the woman’s melodramatic narration of her life, 3-part breakdown of her tale that started through snippets of the characters’ current status, and then transitioned to the first ever-scene that kicked off her complicated story.
The director has done a great job of delivering the story in an efficient manner, stirring the curiosity of the audience right at the very first frame, then giving out bits of significant details one at a time through a well-crafted flow of scenes and cleverly-written script that takes advantage of flashbacks, diversified camera shots and angles, ideal lighting circumstances, symbolic depictions, and interplay of various transitions, letting the story unravel mysteries and answer queries in a well-paced manner, a gradual progress that’s just perfect, not too forced out and not too fast. Technicality-wise, the film is almost flawless, with most of the cinematographic techniques used suggested movements and amplified emotions, facial expressions, body language and unspoken thoughts of the characters.
For a newbie in the film industry, it’s amazing how the director perfectly translated the intense emotions to camera shots and movements, making use of closeups, extreme close ups, midshots, panning from left to right shots, worm’s eye view shots and canted shots to capture the best of emotions, while keeping everything as authentic as possible in every angle: the direction of scenes, the shift in lights, the establishing shots and the black fadeouts all made a perfect blend to produce a coherent and natural-looking screenplay. The minimalist approach to image enhancement, digital alterations, sound effects, and musical scoring kept the scenes flow naturally yet effectively, with most of the credits attributed to the creative improvisation of shots, such as the director’s frequent use of two-dimensional stories in a single shot, or the incorporation of two sets of characters that have two different perspectives to tell, in a single frame. One of those hefty shots is the high-grade, aerial shot of the grassy kiddie park that showed how the two characters, Liu Yazi and Yuk Cheong, are doing separately within the same enormous area.
The cinematographer also incorporated the blurring effect to emphasize shift of focus among characters in a single frame. Liu Yazi’s formal meetings with Attorney Kamy and Doctor Wan for instance, always make use of this blurring effect, where the camera would go for a slow 360-degree turn around the three characters until it stops to a point-of-view shot of the two characters that will subsequently converse, and the transfer of camera focus occurs thereafter. The blurring effect also created a dramatic impact in revealing the inner thoughts of the characters, such as during Liu Yazi’s hospital visitation that implied her secret dream to be a mother. The scene featured a wide shot of hers on the extreme right and happy families on the left, wherein the cameraman switched the focus from Liu Yazi by blurring her image to emphasize the joyous couple with their baby.
Some of the standout scenes in the film that exuded genuine emotions and appeal include Liu Yazi’s fetal scan with Doctor Luk, which is characterized by an extreme close up of her blinking, restless eyes, as well as an extreme closeup shot on her fidgetty hands, that gently shifted to a canted body shot on the tensed, bed-ridden Yazi, when the doctor allowed her to hear the heartbeat of her twin babies- making it look pretty sentimental as the canted shot slows down and the only audible thing as of the moment are the babies’ loud thugs of heartbeat. In spite of the absence of words, Yazi’s deep-welled joy and anticipation for motherhood was felt across the cinema house. Basically, the camera is constantly in motion, and each scene is carefully planned in terms of the positioning and the distance of the cast and the cameramen, making the movie totally engaging to the senses, as if we’re also part of the film.
Proper control of music is such a crucial element in bringing out the best in each dramatic scene, for music can either define the moment or monotize the emotional surge when imported at the wrong timing. The film’s musical director successfully accentuated the height of emotions through the interplay of momentary pauses and shift in dynamics, where the instrumental music is played with certain interruptions to dramatically highlight the speaking character’s words. The mellow music of violin and guitar accompaniment suits the predominantly dramatic film, with almost the entire film banking on natural sounds (NATSOT) of busy roads, screeching cars and beach waves, among others.
The commendable cinematography of Zhang Yin also included an impeccable lighting direction that definitely suits the ever-changing tempo and mood of the story. The three-part film presents the highs and lows of each character, which demands a coherent shift from dark lighting to light-hued lighting, and vice versa. Breaking down the exploits of the characters entails a smooth shift of lighting themes from time to time, and it was exquisitely done by the cinematographer, making similar patterns of scenes easily identifiable according to lighting mood.
The shift from the highs and lows consist of five common lighting themes- the dim, yellow lighting, bright yellow lighting, grayish-blue light, illuminated light, and the rest is natural lighting. Yellow lighting undeniably proved conducive for deep, intimate conversations, with dim, yellow lights overtaking most of Liu Yazi’s confidential meetings with Attorney Kamy and Doctor Wan, while bright yellow lights lent the romantic vibe during an isolated talk between Liu Yazi and her boyfriend, Law Chun Ming. Grayish-blue lighting, on the other hand, works best for Yazi’s gloomy and painful episodes in her room, including her secret breakdowns and stressful pregnancy. For a playful and carefree vibe, the cinematographer also injected an illuminating effect to a series of scenes held at a park, where kids are running around, fumbling with kites, and are brimming with pure childish glee. Liu Yazi’s fascination with bubbly kids and with warm, loving families was clearly-demonstrated in the scenes, where she even trodded on the grass barefooted, twirling around like a little girl whisked in a dream. In the same set of fancy scenes comes a giddy element of surprise- tycoon Yuk Cheong, the biological father of Yazi’s babies, becomes totally smitten with the ever-blushing Yazi. The illuminated onscreen appeal actually justified the subsequent, romantic scenes between Yuk Cheong and Liu Yazi.
A silhouette of a man darting past the door is also an ideal lighting effect in one of the scenes where a certain stranger starts knocking on Yazi’s door- a suspenseful scene which heightened Yazi’s anxiety. Another incredible lighting effect injected to the movie is the natural rays of the sun that penetrated in one of the church windows where Yazi was standing by- a round ball of radiant light that shone brightly on her face that made her look like the ever-glowing face of the Virgin Mary.
The pool of cast members also did not disappoint, as they nailed the roles they portrayed as if the roles were tailor-made for them. Liu Yazi’s innocent yet infallible inner strength was perfectly delivered by Chih-ying Chu; Yuk Cheong’s masculine and regal persona, suits Jacky Cheung perfectly; while Cherri In’s take on the role of mean girl tabloid starlet Tracy Ty doesn’t look like film-acting at all. Not a single actor outshined another; the casting was superb.
The most fascinating thing to me, though, is the development of the characters as each chapter unfolds. Revelatory insights on the film’s characters intensified the plot’s element of unpredictability, making it a totally explosive one to watch out for. The first time the ever strong-willed Kamy softened her eyes and narrated her painful past to Yazi is truly moving, and seeing the civilized and the seemingly-unromantic Yuk Cheong finally rediscovering his soft spot in Yazi’s alluring persona is such a heart-warming scene. But the most groundbreaking unveiling of ‘depth’ among characters is definitely Liu Yazi, who showed off her vulnerability and fears as a young woman like any damsel in distress does, something that’s far-fetched from the independent and gutsy girl she used to be since day one.
With a totally relatable story to boot, “A Complicated Story” is one straightforward, heart-wrenching story that is filled with valuable teachings on family, self-acceptance and love- three important aspects to a person’s life that is somewhat a gauge of one’s purpose and satisfaction.
Yazi was indeed confronted with the reality she’s been afraid to admit all her life- she’s been living a pretentious life, and has always been wallowed by emptiness and self-denial, hoping that child-bearing would redeem her and give her a sense of direction. Just like Yazi who is always on the run, we may also be running away from certain truths in our lives, intimidated to face the reality head on and disheartened to wrestle with the challenges that come with pursuing happiness- our own version of happiness. Oftentimes, the biggest stumbling block to our happiness is not anyone or anything else, but our very own selves. But how do we deprive ourselves of happiness?
Compelling as it may seem, our personal convictions tend to complicate our lives instead of straightening out things for us, as we follow a silhouette of stereotypes and embrace roles cut out for us, instead of choosing the path that really defines us. And as we live a life of pretense, we tend to make crucial decisions emanating from the wrong intentions, as we try to cover up for the loopholes we have with ourselves- and the cycle goes on and on. Far beyond the issues of abortion and motherhood, “A Complicated Story” is a story about people’s secret pains and frustrations, and how these unresolved issues result to wrong motives in decision-making. Harry Potter’s right when he said that, “It’s our decisions that define us- far more than our abilities.”
Life throws in unexpected packages in the form of hardships and tribulations, but it will also deliver opportunities to salvage us in more ways that we can imagine. And for Yazi, she has finally found the “music” and “melody” to her out-of-tune life, and this time, she’s making a decision that’s truly her, and sticks with it.
P.S. Liu Yazi named her twins, “Music” and “Melody.”