Since the Golden Globe nominations came out today, it’s only appropriate that I begin this review by invoking Ricky Gervais. In 2006, Gervais appeared in an episode of The Simpsons in which he is also the credited writer, the first time a guest star ever got the honors. One of the most famous lines of “Homer Simpson, This is Your Wife,” comes during a scene where Gervais’ character, Charles, is warned by Homer about areas on Marge’s body he’s not allowed to touch (they’re participating in a Wife Swap-style reality show). After Charles rambles a bit in a sort of David Brent-esque manner, Homer retorts with narrowed, suspicious eyes, “You take forever to say nothing.”
It is that singular quip that kept running through my head while watching No. 7 Cherry Lane, a Hong Kong production submitted to the Academy for Best Animated Feature. I decided to take a night off from International Feature entries, and I still ended up reading subtitles. But that’s neither here nor there. What is here is a seemingly endless slog of quasi-erotic family drama that takes more than two hours of intentionally stilted dialogue and animation to basically tell no real story and have no real resolution. Amazingly, it competed at the Venice Film Festival and won Best Screenplay. If it weren’t my very purpose to spout my opinions, words would fail me.
I will say that some of the animation is quite clever. Early shots show a contrast between a washed out cityscape and vibrant green wooded areas. Trees part like cardboard set pieces being pulled by offscreen hands. A cat jumps onto a mantle, with its shadow coming up seconds later before expanding to cast other forms. Additionally, separate from all the other elements, the orchestral score is truly beautiful, with melancholy strings staying just on the edge from intruding on the proceedings. What I’m saying is that the film isn’t a total failure, though it comes close.
The story, such as it is, is incredibly simple. A university student named Zeming (voiced by Alex Lam) is hired to be an English tutor for a bon vivant student named Meiling (Zhao Wei). As Meiling is late for the first lesson, Zeming waits with her mother, Mrs. Yu (Sylvia Chang), and forms a rapport with her based on a shared love of verbose literature. Their friendship forms so fast that when Meiling finally arrives, her mother finds herself fantasizing about Zeming, leading to an erotic dream sequence. Over the course of about six months, Zeming woos Mrs. Yu by taking her to old movies while also doing his best to protect Meiling’s feelings. You can see the beginnings of a love triangle forming, but the film intentionally leaves things ambiguous and open-ended, only going so far as a passionate kiss for either woman.
That’s pretty much it. In a two-hour film, I just summed up the entire plot in one paragraph. This movie is beyond frustratingly slow. It’s deliberate, but woefully misguided. The discussions of Marcel Proust give the filmmakers a meta reasoning for the intentional snail pace, but that doesn’t make it any less infuriating. Half the “dialogue” in the movie is an uncredited narrator who literally tells us everything each character is doing, including what they’re saying, right before the character says and does it. It’s all so superfluous. You want to court a woman by showing her old Simone Signoret movies like Room at the Top and Ship of Fools? Fine. But what I don’t need is to then watch those movies animated within this film. Just give us a cursory look at the screen and a line or two of dialogue to explain the context for those who don’t know. We waste a good 20 minutes on this crap over the course of THREE different, nearly identical scenes, only to end up in the same place. Mrs. Yu wants to break herself off a piece of Zeming, and Zeming, by showing her films featuring an older female lead, is kind of into it. That’s it.
Sadly it’s not just obtuse dialogue dragging out the proceedings. We also get a ton of side characters that add literally nothing to the story. There’s a peeping tom character who watches Zeming shower and then begs to be his friend. He’s completely creepy, and only shows up two more times just to mumble Zeming’s name like he’s orgasming on the spot. Mrs. Yu’s upstairs neighbor is an operatic drag queen whose stage name is “Concubine Yu,” a mistake Zeming makes in meeting her instead of Mrs. Yu for the first lesson. She pops back up for two pointless scenes, one of which is talking to another neighbor never seen before or since. On the way to Cherry Lane, Zeming meets a fashionable girl in a yellow dress asking for directions. She reappears once, apparently dating Zeming’s friend, Steven. She, like all these others, have no bearing on the plot whatsoever, but their combined presences adds about 15 confused minutes to the run time.
Finally, and most baffling, is that the characters are designed like dolls (though unlike Barbie and Ken they have genitals, and we get a healthy dose of them), and they move as such. Wooden, stiff, rigid, and confoundingly slow. Every movement looks like it was done in stop-motion slowed down by 50%, even though it’s 2D digital animation. I swear to God you could knock about 45 minutes off this film just by having them walk at normal speed.
I’m all for artistic temperament and erotica, but give me a reason for it. Seriously, what was the point of any of these choices? It can’t have anything to do with the film’s setting – 1967, with student protests firmly in the background – and no other Chinese animated film I’ve seen would take this route in its presentation style. There’s no direct reference to any inspired works apart from the momentary literary dialogues and the sex fantasy, and even if there was, it’d be so esoteric as to soar over the audience’s head entirely.
This is just confusing and pretentious. It has nothing to say, and inexplicably takes two hours to do it. The eroticism seems completely forced, the characters aren’t even one-note, and the intentionally slow pace is maddening. For all this film was apparently trying to be, you could have easily accomplished the same goal in about 1/10 the time if you searched “Asian MILF Wants Daughter’s Cute Tutor” on PornHub.
It’d probably be more satisfying, too.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you get anything out of this movie? Was there any point to the 60s setting apart from the fashion? Let me know!