Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Sylvia Chang's Love Education (2017), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from April 19 – May 18, 2019 in MUBI's Luminaries strand.
Early into Sylvia Chang’s Love Education, a family of three from Zhengzhou stumbles upon a chastity arch. It’s a landmark that stands in strident contrast with the sprawling concrete beehives of the second-tier city they come from, a relic redolent of an altogether different time and space, where widows who remained faithful to their late husbands were praised for their loyalty and purity. Its exact purpose may be alien to millennial Weiwei (Lang Yueting), but resonates closely to her fifty-something mother, Huiying (Chang), who darts it a cold glance: “it means it’s tough to be a woman.”
Should there be a tagline for the filmography Taiwanese singer-turned-actress-turned-director Sylvia Chang has crafted in a career spanning over four decades, this would serve as a good start. From her early hit records penned with songwriter and producer Jonathan Lee to her acting credits under the likes of King Hu, Edward Yang, and Tsui Hark—before sitting behind the camera herself for the first time in 1981 with Once Upon A Time, and shifting between acting and directing ever since—Chang’s oeuvre has been paved with fierce women, romantic heroines imbued with a no-nonsense swagger and a stoic determination never to back down before adversities. Love Education, an engrossing portrait of three generations of Chinese women grappling with love at different stages in life, adds a few more to the pantheon.
The chastity arch welcomes Weiwei, Huiying, and Xiaoping (Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang) into the ancestral Hunan province home to Huiying’s late father. It is here, in an act of filial duty, that Huiying is to exhume the man’s body from its resting place and relocate it to the city, fulfilling what she claims was her recently deceased mother’s last wish: to be reunited and buried next to her husband. But no sooner have the three stepped foot into the rural village than the man’s first wife by arranged marriage, Nana (Wu Yanshu), throws herself over the man’s grave, rallying fellow villagers behind her to chase the intruders away. What ensues is a restless legal battle between two families that extends from a dispute over a dead man’s resting place to the political economy of an entire society.
Chang aficionados may view Love Education as an interesting companion piece to her 20:30:40, the title alluding to the ages of its three heroines, twenty-year-old popstar hopeful Xiao Jie (Angelica Lee), thirty-year-old flight attendant Xiang Xiang (René Liu), and forty-year-old freshly divorcee Lily (Chang herself). Similarly to Chang’s 2004 tale of inter-generational strife, Love Education zeroes in on three women caught at different milestone ages, but pushes these a few years forward. Weiwei is an opinionated TV reporter close to her thirties, working on an Oprah-style talk show; Huiying is a school teacher approaching her sixties and the cusp of retirement; and Nana a nonagenarian still selflessly in love with a man she was only briefly able to live with before he was forced to look for work and fortune in the city—and only returned in a coffin. So vast is the hiatus in their long-distance relationship that Nana does not even remember what her beloved looked like; in what’s possibly Love Education’s most poignant moment, shown an old photo of him by Chang she caresses the picture in disbelief.
Love Education exists as a tale of irreconcilable cosmogonies, an antinomy between an urban and a rural world depicted as seemingly water-tight universes, each with its own language, belief system, and jurisdiction. “We will do whatever local customs allow us,” Chang reassures villagers early into her negotiations with Nana, effectively underscoring the distance—cultural as much as it is geographical—separating the two worlds. But remote as it may be, Nana’s must ultimately bend to the bureaucratic apparatus governing Huiying’s. The old lady’s arranged marriage is not valid, for there are no documents to confirm it (save for a handwritten family tree Nana holds as irrefutable proof, and which a city lawyer politely dismisses as irrelevant). Curiously, back in her traffic-jammed city, Huiying herself struggles to find evidence to back her own cause, venturing into a Kafkaesque legal nightmare that sees her hopping in and out of state archives in search of a marriage certificate that dates back to a pre-digital world of which public employees seem to have kept no trace.
This restless fumbling after an irretrievable past clashes with a society that sees progress as a zero-sum game—a contradiction that functions as Love Education’s cornerstone. In an early scene, Huiying and Xiaoping stroll by a new estate project that sprouted on the grounds where Weiwei’s old school used to stand, and there’s something tragic in the way Huiying squints at the construction site, searching for a long-gone place among the rubble with the gravitas of an archaeologist inspecting the ruins of a lost civilization. Cities, buildings, relationships—everything around Huiying seems propelled into a hysterical and supersonic thrust forward, where every new thing feeds off the ruins of what preceded it, in a parasitic growth that sinks the past deeper down into oblivion and leaves no space for memories or nostalgia.
Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing (famed for In The Mood For Love and many Hou Hsiao-hsein films) combines tracking shots with zoom lenses, capturing characters as they move in and out of interiors splashed with golden and green hues, echoing the lushness of Chang’s 2015 Murmurs of the Hearts. But the shot composition suggests a deeply fractured family. Even when they’re all at home, Huiying, Xiaoping, and Weiwei are often framed from empty corridors, alone in their own rooms, the doors open, but the three bent and locked into their own hermetic microcosms.
Huiying and Nana’s struggle may be one of dry bureaucratic impasses, but it pivots on a far-reaching question—what exactly constitutes a relationship—a dilemma which leads Chang to address the ontology of marriage and love itself. “Whatever that was,” her Huiying caustically comments on the late father’s liaison with Nana, “it wasn’t love: they were too poor to afford it.” Feelings are subordinated to the financial means needed for them to blossom: capital as a pre-requisite for love. It’s a brutally pragmatic posture that reads as a far cry from the heartfelt compassion Nana still feels for her late husband, or Weiwei’s own sincere affection for her own boyfriend Da (Ning Song).
If Nana serves as custodian of a world of untimely rituals and traditions, and Weiwei stands as the embodiment of an encroaching modernity—the camera dangling from the girl’s neck in her first visit to the village foreshadowing the media circus she’ll come back with later, as the producers of her TV show will pounce on Nana’s plight as gossip for the masses—Huiying is caught in the middle. She is marooned between her daughter and her parents’ generations—close to each, but never truly in tuned with either. And while it may be more difficult to empathize with Huiying’s ruthless legal battles than with Nana’s stoic quest to defend her past love, or Weiwei’s own clumsy fumbling into adulthood, Chang graces Huiying with enough compassion for her struggle to come across as understandable and relatable.
Penned by Xiaoying You and Chang herself, the script hashes Huiying’s quest to avenge her parent’s supposedly idyllic marriage as a palliative to gloss over the fragility of her own. Commenting on Nana’s purported love for her late father, she throws a jibe that reads as an oblique appraisal of her own relationship with Xiaoping: “even if you’ve lived together all your life, it doesn’t mean you love each other.” Huiying’s is the struggle of somebody who’s mourning the loss of a parent while grappling with the epiphany she may no longer be one herself, for free-spirited and rebellious Weiwei is caught in a protracted adolescence that sees daughter and mother fighting and drifting farther apart. To watch Chang power through a Byzantine labyrinth of government red tape, frustration brewing and threatening her glacial and composed stare, is to witness the quirks and tics of a control freak who suddenly realizes things are slipping through her fingers.
“Maybe by the law she doesn’t stand a chance,” a relative of Nana’s tells a lawyer in the midst of the woman’s frantic search for paperwork, “but we Chinese have sympathy!” It’s a word that’s uttered again in another crucial juncture, an altercation between Xiaoping and Weiwei, the father accusing his daughter of being just like Huiying, that is, having “no sympathy.” But it’s an unfair assessment for either woman. By the time Love Education clocks minute 121, Weiwei’s interest for Nana has shifted from the predatory and morbid curiosity her job has taught her to a near sisterly love. A camera clutched for dear life, she points it at Nana, the two of them alone in the old lady’s house, encouraging the nonagenarian to share her own version of things. Filmmaking no longer geared to porno-misery, but an act of family archeology, of archival memory. And even Huiying’s insensitivity gradually evaporates in favor of a newfound empathy. In a final heart to heart with Xiaoping, husband and wife drive into a hazy sunset, the chat’s tone shifting from confrontational to relieving as Huiying allows herself a flickering moment of vulnerability, and the generational schisms of the three women come to a closure, the light swelling the car into something large and hopeful.