To coincide with the publication of World Film Locations: Beijing from Intellect Books, co-editor John Berra reviews six Beijing-set films to illustrate how China’s ever-changing capital city has inspired commercial and independent filmmakers alike, from the 1990s to today.
Based on the hugely popular novel Du Lala’s Promotion (2009) by Li Ke, a work of fiction which has become the unofficial handbook for Chinese women seeking success in the corporate world, Go Lala Go! is a cheerful romantic-comedy that presents China’s urbanites with a relatable heroine. Having been sexually harassed in her previous position (a plot point dealt with in a brief flashback in order to keep the tone upbeat), ambitious young professional Lala (Xu Jinglei) searches for a new job and lands an entry-level position with DB Technologies, an international company that values, ‘efficiency and innovation’. Located at Beijing Yintai Centre in the heart of the Central Business District, the company is based on an American business model, but still has Chinese characteristics that are evident in the office politics, and has a rule that forbids romantic relationships between employees. It is this rule that could stand in the way of Lala’s future when she has a fling with sales director Wei (Stanley Huang), who has previously been in a relationship with human resources director Rose (Karen Mok). Deciding to focus on her career, Lala tells Wei to forget about what happened, only for further complications to ensue when she is promoted to the position of Wei’s secretary. After some awkwardness, they give romance a try, but when Lala finds out that Wei may still have feelings for Rose, she consoles herself through consumerism, then questions if a balance can be achieved between personal happiness and professional status.
Go Lala Go! is the third feature by Xu in the capacity of director-writer-star, following My Father and I (2003) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (2004). Although not as familiar to audiences in the West as some of her contemporaries, Xu has developed a loyal domestic following since her screen debut in Spicy Love Soup (1997), expanding her audience by diversifying into e-publishing with the bi-monthly lifestyle e-zine Kaila, while maintaining a personal blog. Xu’s media identity as a multi-tasking star makes the character of Lala a safe choice for her first directorial foray into commercial filmmaking, as her previous efforts behind the camera were aimed more at the art-house crowd than the popcorn market. Everything about Go Lala Go! is blatantly pitched at China’s rapidly growing multiplex audience, for whom buying a ticket to the latest release rather than picking up a cheap bootleg copy from a DVD seller is a sign of social mobility. The opening sequence establishes a Beijing of glistening skyscrapers and branded goods, not only setting up Lala’s story but introducing the product placement that will be seen in abundance throughout. With the aforementioned piracy market cutting into box office takings, cooperation with luxury brands has become a way for studios to limit financial risk by covering production costs in advance of commercial release. While such placements often prove distracting in mainstream Chinese cinema, Xu largely manages to integrate the product plugs (including Armani, Lenovo, Lipton, Mazda, and Nokia) with her character’s professional trajectory.
While lifestyle symbols are on constant display, with intermittent text informing the audience of Lala’s monthly salary increases over the course of two years, Xu emphasises that Lala’s meteoric rise is achieved through creativity and hard work. A positive spin is placed on having a careerist attitude, but Xu also makes it clear that these characters are forcing themselves to conform to type in order to achieve success: Lala’s effervescent personality is diluted by designer labels, while Wei gets claustrophobic in packed office elevators and adopts an impersonal manner, later revealed to be at odds with his true nature. Wei’s real feelings unfold during the company bonus trip to Pattaya, Thailand, with the laid-back pleasures of this beach resort providing contrast to the pressures associated with Beijing’s urban sprawl. Although intended as a comedy, the humour in Go Lala Go! is rarely more than moderately amusing, with Lala’s exercise session in the office stairwell while singing along to ‘Don’t Cry For me, Argentina’ on her iPod being a brief highlight. Mostly played straight by all concerned, it is left to Jiang Liwei’s bright cinematography, glamorous costumes courtesy of Patricia Fields of Sex and the City (1998-2004) fame, a pop soundtrack, and Xu’s natural charm to provide the necessary bouncy rhythm. Go Lala Go! is the kind of popular phenomenon that remains restricted to its domestic market, but such unabashed eagerness to provide the local audience with its desired corporate fantasy makes this a relevant snapshot of Beijing’s self-image circa 2010.