Poetic licence

Hit movie sequel delights some with use of ancient verse, alienates others

tang wei

Tang Wei: reciting Tang rhymes

In the film You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan asks Tom Hanks why men like to quote lines from The Godfather. He replies: “The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation? ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli.’”

Filmmaker Xue Xiaolu prefers to draw on different sources for her own inspiration – namely, ancient Chinese poetry. In her latest romantic comedy Book of Love, she inserts ancient Chinese verse in the dialogue, including lines by Tang Dynasty poets like Liu Yuxi and Wang Changling.

Xue says the use of the poems is designed to remind younger audiences of an integral part of Chinese culture that is often sidelined in the social media age.

“Ancient poetry is a personal favourite of mine and I think it is very appropriate in the script. In the story I also touch on the lives of Chinese immigrants and their cultural identity. What’s the most obvious Chinese cultural symbol? Obviously for me it is ancient poetry,” she told Information Times.

Not everyone is a fan. While most of the reviews for Book of Love are generally favourable, some complain that Xue’s liberal sprinkling of antiquated verse is “overly pretentious” and “excessive”.

“Director, please remember, just because you want to quote ancient poems doesn’t mean it needs to be obnoxious. And just because you are cultured doesn’t mean you need to recite poetry all the time,” one cinemagoer complained on Douban, a film and TV series review site.

The criticism won’t come as a major surprise for Xue. In an interview with the China Daily, she had already voiced concerns that her chosen style might “alienate young audiences” but said that she wasn’t dissuaded from using poetry because it “represents the most typical part of Chinese culture”.

Book of Love – a sequel to 2013’s Finding Mr Right – has got off to a strong commercial start. Over the May Day weekend, the film made over Rm350 million ($53.8 million) in ticket sales and should surpass Finding Mr Right in takings.

Like the first feature, Book of Love features star actress Tang Wei and actor Wu Xiubo in the leading roles. The plotlines of the two films are standalone, however (just like Sleepless in Seattle and its ‘sequel’ You’ve Got Mail, which cashed in on the chemistry between the leads, but cast them as entirely different characters).

This time round, the story revolves around Jiao Ye (played by Tang) — a public relations manager at a Macau hotel who always falls in love with the wrong men – and Daniel (Wu), who plays a Los Angeles-based real estate agent who has made a fortune selling houses to Chinese buyers but derives little satisfaction from his job.

The unlikely pair develop a relationship over their shared love of the novel 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Like in that novel, some of the story is based on the distance between the two characters, who write to each other (yes, paper-based communication rather than emails and texts).

Again, Xue wanted to take her audience back to practices from days gone by. She says that while few send letters anymore, she wanted to remind the audience of the beauty of handwritten notes.

“If you write, you will come up with some beautiful lines. You can hardly find these just talking or sending messages on phone apps or over social media,” she told the China Daily.

Again, however, Xue’s more hardheaded critics wondered if she was being too self-indulgent. “It is obvious that the director is a true romantic at heart. But to find a soulmate through writing letters – while nostalgic – in an era where everything is done online, that seems romantic to the point of impossibility,” one wrote.

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