Ever Since We Love is the most mainstream effort to date from Sixth Generation alumnus Li Yu who has turned her attention to a coming of age story that is far removed from the boundary pushing territory of her landmark debut Fish and Elephant (2001) or the fierce class system critique of Lost in Beijing (2007). Based on the semi-autobiographical 2005 novel Everything Grows by Feng Tang – who has carved out a literary niche as a chronicler of Beijing youth while forging a career as a business consultant in Hong Kong – it marks the first time that Li has tackled a male protagonist although her regular leading lady Fan Bingbing has been the focus of the film’s domestic marketing campaign.
Set in the 1990s, the narrative finds fourth year Beijing medical school student Qiu Shui (Han Geng) romantically torn between controlling classmate Bai Lu (Qi Xi) and the sultry Liu Qing (Fan), who he encounters by chance in a hotel lobby while waiting to meet his sister’s foreign boyfriend. Although he has been involved with Bai for some time, Qiu’s interest is piqued by the upscale Liu, who initially befriends the impoverished student to seek advice on unwanted pregnancies: Liu soon finds Qiu to be a straight-forward confidant and more attentive than the affluent lovers who have left her emotionally wanting. Taking a break from social-economic ladder climbing, she enjoys participating in the extra-curricular activities of his closely-knit group of friends, but their ensuing dalliance has severe consequences when Bai learns of his lustful betrayal and self-destructs. A deeply conflicted Qiu seeks solace in alcohol, with his destructive behavior causing Liu to break off their burgeoning relationship.
Even with the period detail kept to a minimum, Ever Since We Love serves as a snapshot of China’s shift to materialism at a time when the opening-up policy brought about new dynamics with the film’s character’s prioritizing their economic potential or pleasure seeking over making a serious contribution to society. Qiu and his fellow students cheerfully cheat their way through examinations and dream of the wealth that can be attained if they become ‘A-list’ doctors in the capital, while Liu has completed only a basic education yet has managed to establish a company that supplies hospitals with imported medical equipment. Her business partner Mao (Lv Xing) once attended the same elite school as Qui and, despite dropping out, is a figure of worship having achieved a level of private sector success that has enabled him to buy three Mercedes.
As the central figure in not only the film’s entanglements but its ideological tensions, Qiu is caught at a crossroads: an acceptable but not exactly driven student, he has a sideline in writing martial arts novels but imitates the style of celebrated genre authors rather than developing his own. Still emotionally scarred from his first girlfriend Xiaoman (Li Meng) leaving him for a government official, Qui’s general passivity suggests that he wants to self-sabotage his ascent out of sheer loathing for the sense of entitlement that he perceives to come with professional success. Filtering events through Qiu’s point of view sadly means that Li uncharacteristically shortchanges her female characters who are erratically developed – Liu enters the film as a seductive temptress only to become inexplicably homely later on – although Qi and Fan still draw attention away from the capable but uncharismatic Han despite working with inconsistent material.
Ever Since We Love is superficially similar to recent mainland China box office hits So Young (2013) and Fleet of Time (2014) in its evocation of 1990s student milieu and use of a present day reunion scene as a cathartic device, but this is a comparatively adult proposition. Having worked on such sensuous Lou Ye films as Summer Palace (2006) and Spring Fever (2009), cinematographer and co-editor Jian Zeng has no trouble injecting the proceedings with erotically charged visual rhythms that are accentuated by the eclectic compositions of Takeshi Kobayashi and Howie B. Unfortunately, a boldly explicit but hyperactively edited sojourn to Inner Mongolia pushes the film into stylistic overload, while occasional biologically themed animation sequences are clever but unnecessary.
Li’s efforts to maintain the human complexities of her earlier work eventually give way to a predictable run of tearful outbursts, late confessions, life-changing tragedy, and a resolution that is as tidy as it is sentimental. As uneven as it is, though, the somewhat bumpy ride that Ever Since We Love takes to emotional maturity makes it infinitely more interesting than the routine campus-based nostalgia trips that are now a staple of China’s commercial cinema.