Pictured: Lin Ge (Lee Hongchi) puts his arm around aspiring ballerina Qiu Qian (Li Yitong) in the Chinese romantic fantasy, 'Love You Forever', directed by Yoyo Yao. Still courtesy of Trinity Cine Asia (UK)
You have aged before your time. You open a nice leather-bound notebook. You smooth back the first page, so it does not uncomfortably snap back. Your fountain pen hovers over blank paper. It is a good pen. Ink does not drip. You recall walking by the river alone. You describe how no one has any memory of you. How is this possible?
You fall in love with a young woman, Qiu Qian, who has an unfortunate habit of almost dying. At one point, having said goodnight to you on your birthday, she is hit by a speeding vehicle. On another night, in a theatre, she is hit by a falling girder. Even in the street, she is stabbed during a mugging. Incredible bad luck. Her father gave up his life so she could study. You do the same, rubbing a semi broken watch that you found at the bottom of a pool and pleading that you will do anything in order that she pulls through.
Suddenly you do not exist. The woman you thought was your mother does not give birth to you. After she dies, the man you thought was your father does not become a drunk. But he does keep his late wife’s sweet wrappers. She twisted them into hearts. Cute – or obsessive-compulsive?
Amazingly, Qiu Qian survives. She lives to pursue a career in dance. She has no memory of you, not even of saving you when you are attacked by bullies in 1991. You are wearing an outfit made by your mother, with a two-pronged crown and a cardboard sash. Your mother has died but you honour her by not removing it. Young Qiu Qian reaches out her hand. She even does a little dance for you. Her marble rolls into water and you go in to retrieve it. The water is deeper than you anticipate. Then you find the watch. It prompts a game: ‘wolf, wolf, what’s the time’. Three o’clock.
The summer is over all too quickly. Qiu Qian is driven away in a yellow car. ‘Wolf, wolf, what’s the time?’ you cry out helplessly, chasing the car to stay within your friend’s eyesight. Too late.
Eleven years later and you are hanging out with your two best friends, selling Pepsi Cola bottles with test answers written on the back of the label. You chug one bottle and pull the label back to demonstrate. Your classmates all clamour for them but then Bad Monkey, a teacher, appears. The three of you run. In a rehearsal space, you are surprised to see Qiu Qian, now seventeen years old. You move towards the door of the room as she pirouettes across the space. Then you fall. ‘Qiu Qian,’ you say, as you look up at her. She shows no recognition.
Pictured: Qiu Qian (Li Yitong) and Lin Ge (Lee Hongchi) in a scene from 'Love You Forever', a Chinese romantic fantasy (with a lot of crying) directed by Yoyo Yao. Still courtesy of Trinity Cine Asia (UK)
You engage her in conversation, but she is called away. A tall boy scolds you for encouraging cheating and ruining other boys’ lives. Later, he will show up in Prague and bail you about of jail after you get into a fight with local thugs who push over your food cart. Later still he will give Qiu Qian a ring but not show up for her final ballet performance. He intends to take her to New York, but she is concerned by the failing health of an old man, Lin, who offers her an umbrella as she leaves the theatre in the rain. ‘I didn’t return the last one you loaned me,’ she tells him as he holds out the telescopic umbrella as a respectful offering. He is happy to help. But then he collapses theatrically – well, it is a theatre. He is taken to hospital and Qiu Qian is asked to go to his apartment to look for his medication. There she is surprised by a piercing squeak. She has trodden on a rubber chicken. She wanders past a set of film posters – Midnight in Paris, Premonition. Then she finds the leather-bound notebook. But what about his medicine?
Back in the present, you are at home retrieving the old broken watch. You scold your father for being drunk. He scolds you for trying to make money at school. ‘We only sold a few,’ you insist. Finally, you make a run for it. Outside, something hits you in the head. You hear a cry: ‘three o’clock’. It is Qiu Qian. She is cycling with her dog, Nian Nian. You catch up and talk to the dog. You give her the watch. She is amazed that you still have it.
She describes how she hates water but is not allowed to drink anything else for her training. You surprise her during her dance class with a pink rimmed plastic bottle of water with plums at the bottom – the most delicious water in the world, you allege.
In the rain, you observe a fat boy sitting down at a food stall insolently spitting out watermelon seeds. Qiu Qian is with you. She closes her eyes. If she cannot taste food, she might at least smell it. She describes it and as she does, we (not you) see a crispy kebab, flavoured with ‘salty-pepper’. It is your birthday. You are not to open your present. You say goodbye to her. You intend to tell her how you feel. Instead, you mutter some nonsense about being glad she is back. As you walk away, you scold yourself, but then you decide to run after her. You see her. It is raining. There is a vehicle heading towards her.
Then you are in hospital. You are not allowed in the operating room. Well, you do not have a medical degree. You open the present, look at the watch then pray for Qiu Qian to live. Then you faint or fall asleep or allow yourself to be transformed by make-up artists – long hair, a beard that looks like it was purchased over the internet. According to your old schoolfriends, who later comment on your appearance, you are thirty years old. You run out into the street. It is still your birthday. Qiu Qian is alive. You rush home and help yourself to food. The house is much neater. Your father appears. ‘How do you like the food?’ he asks. ‘It’s a little salty.’ Then your father attacks you. He does not recognise you and runs you out of the house. You note that you do not appear in the family photo on the mantelpiece. You really do not exist.
Surely your two old friends will recognise you. Surely not. ‘We are being followed,’ one says to the other. The most scared of the pair starts talking about their gangster friend, the one who killed a man. This is not enough to deter you. The two teenagers know what will happen next, if they so much as look at you. Hoping to stir their recognition, you explain that one of them has urine bifurcation, the other understands the theory of relativity, but because it does not come up in exams, he is forced to cheat. (No, I do not understand that one either.) You show one of the teens a Pepsi Cola label: ‘this is your handwriting’. He agrees. Finally, you offer to take them to their secret base, a storeroom with a large pile of denim jeans. Who would leave such a mountain of laundry? Maybe they are the accumulation of jeans confiscated from students who were not advised of the uniform code. For you and your two friends, they represent an opportunity to make money.
Indeed, with some posters printed up depicting you as a teen idol, the jeans augmented with designer scribble – the same as regular scribble, but do not tell anyone – you are back to your mercantile ways. The jeans sell like hot cakes. Having introduced yourself to Qiu Qian, explaining that you know all about her habit of smelling food and hating the taste of water, you ask to accompany her to her audition as her lucky charm. She lets you. However, she does not win first prize. She throws away her certificate in disgust. You retrieve it and have a plan. This involves pretending to be her teacher and telling her mother that she has won a scholarship.
Pictured: Midnight in Prague. Lin Ge (Lee Hongchi) and Qiu Qian (Li Yitong) go for a stroll in the Chinese romantic fantasy 'Love You Forever', directed by Yoyo Yao. Still courtesy of Trinity Cine Asia (UK)
Qiu Qian travels to Prague expecting to meet ‘Handsome Peter’ and is greeted at the airport by you instead. You take her to her lodging, and then unlock the door to the apartment opposite. ‘See you later,’ you say cheekily. You go off to work in a suit, but then don a boiler suit to work on a fishing boat, chiselling fish out of ice. As Qiu Qian studies, you undertake several jobs, but you always seem to upset your employers, even dressed as a dragon. Qiu Qian sees you being fired from the dragon job and makes enquiries about her scholarship. She is a self-paying student, she is told. Finally, she confronts you. You confess you paid for her studies. She recognises you are poor. You share an apartment and become affectionate towards one another.
You upset the pizza restaurant when you set up your food cart. The long line of customers is broken up by a group of thugs. You get into a fight. Qiu Qian’s school crush saves you. You cook him dinner. He sits on the squeaky rubber chicken. Qiu Qian explains your habit of hiding it for visitors to discover unexpectedly. He tells Qiu Qian that the Shanghai Ballet is hiring. He can get her an audition. They should go back to China.
They do go back, but not before an encounter with a fortune teller who warns Qiu Qian in English not to cheat fate. She passes the audition. You visit her as she is about to go on stage. There is an accident. You resort to the watch again.
Qiu Qian lives. You decide to go back to Prague, the only place the pair of you were ever happy. Before then you pay a visit to your father. He cuts your hair. You give him a large note. He cannot change it. You offer to accept dinner from him instead – his meal is almost ready. He accepts. He appears to recognise you. You explain that you lived in the neighbourhood and that you are visiting your father. Things have been difficult. He gives you fatherly advice. He then tells you about your mother’s sweet wrapper habit.
In Prague, you take over ownership of a failing pizza place and open Lin’s Kitchen. Your venture is popular. During New Year’s Eve, at closing time, Qiu Qian stops by. You serve her dumplings. She does not recognise you. You go for a walk and offer her your coat. It has your story in it. You spend the rest of the early morning inebriated, or at least sleeping at a table next to a collection of artfully arranged empty bottles. Qiu Qian has looked at your story. She returns your coat.
There is a happy wedding. Qiu Qian is your bride. Your friends are there. But she wrote that bit. Instead, Qiu Qian is attacked by a knife wielding mugger. In her second life, you tell her not to go out without you. She does not remember that.
Although advised not to use the watch, you do so. We are back in 2019. Qiu Qian has decided not to go to New York with her fiancé. She claims not to wear the ring because of her ballet, which from what we see, mostly involves water sprayed on stage (that’s dangerous). She has bid him farewell. She recognises you as the love of her life. As life fades from your prematurely aged body, she races to find your watch. She prays to it. It explodes.
You are both back at school, running down an outdoor corridor. There is a romantic song, but you cannot hear it because you are a character in a movie, Lin Ge, as portrayed by Lee Hongchi. Qiu Qian is played by Li Yitong.
Released on China’s Valentine’s Day, the film Love You Forever, summarised above, scored the highest individual day’s box office in China’s box office history, earning $38.3 million on Tuesday 25 August 2020. It is adapted from the story ‘Wait Till Nothing Left’ by Zheng Zhi and is directed by Yoyo Yao, her second feature after her successful 2016 romantic drama, Yesterday Once More. It has all the elements for success: appealing leads, broad comedy, a dull romantic rival and an element of fantasy. It also has a reversal. Qiu Qian is willing to sacrifice herself to achieve happiness – never mind this arty ballet nonsense. It also offers Chinese viewers some travelogue imagery of Prague, whilst reminding them that Czechs do not like foreigners. The film does not offer a progressive view of Chinese society, but instead shows the virtues of hard work, self-sacrifice and honouring your elders. The film also demonstrates that jeans look cool.
Chinese cinema attendance does not appear to be adversely affected by Covid-19 as cinema attendance is in western countries, although like many countries, China closed its cinemas for a while. Love You Forever’s box office is dwarfed by the success of the recent release, The Eight Hundred (cumulative gross as of 5 September, $337.54 million), a World War Two movie in which 800 Chinese soldiers fight hordes of Japanese (think 300 meets Hacksaw Ridge minus the conscientious objection). Chinese audiences hold their cinema in the same esteem as Americans treat Hollywood. But is there subversion in mainstream Chinese cinema? The story of Love You Forever hinges on a boy being airbrushed out of history. From what we in the west know about China, it airbrushes its history too; according to Chinese state media, the 1989 student massacre at Tiananmen Square did not happen. Yet the boy has a lingering influence on Qiu Qian. Perhaps that is also true of the student massacre; Chinese youth know, even though they do not ‘remember’. This suggests a reckoning in time, one which China may not welcome.
Reviewed at Cineworld Leicester Square, Central London (Screen Five), Friday 28 August 2020 (also Thursday 3 September 2020, second viewing)