Love Poem (China/Hong Kong, 2020)

For his second feature film Love Poem, independent filmmaker Wang Xiaozhen continues in the vein of comical, awkward frankness and highly self-reflexive form and performance established with his 2013 debut work Around that Winter. As is the case with Around that Winter, Love Poem features Wang, his partner Zhou Qing, and some family members. This time, however, the social dynamic of relationships candidly explored and observed is distilled to the couple (though several family members, including the couple’s daughter, also appear in the film), intensified and concentrated, to the point of spectatorial discomfort. This distillation takes the form of three segments of long takes, separated only by intertitles, wherein Xiaozhen and Qing play past and present versions of themselves, their relationship, and even an additional character for Qing primarily in the singular location of a car. At which point they are simply being or acting constantly shifts in each segment, which contributes much to the film’s attraction and marks its playful blend of documentary and fictional modes. Due to its heavy reliance on conversation, one is thus also very much knee-deep in what I have been calling a “cinema of conversation” but whose iteration is more pointedly self-reflexive than any of the other films or filmmakers that I consider operating within this specific brand of film. Despite the film’s lulls and a stretching-too-thin of the conceit of self-reflexive questioning of selfhood as well as film form, it certainly marks Wang as a notable presence within Chinese independent filmmaking in general and within hybrid docu-fiction and personal approaches to filmmaking more specifically.

The film’s first segment-long take is arguably the strongest portion of the film, which begins with Qing and daughter Xiaoshuo talking in the backseat while Xiaozhen drives. The ease and naturalness of the mother-daughter conversation with occasional participation from the unseen Xiaozhen assures the viewer that it is a documentary. Yet as the conversation shifts between Qing and Xiaoshuo to Qing and Xiaozhen, and the conversation softly morphs in and out of an argument, Qing casually remarks that she wants a divorce “after shooting this film.” Suddenly, then, thrown into relief is the ambiguous status of the film as documentary, fiction, or teetering between the two, abetted by the fact that the film immediately plunges the viewer right in the middle of the three getting into the car without any kind of context provided. In what amounts to a thirty-minute long take that never strays from Qing holding Xiaoshuo in the backseat while Xiaozhen drives/stops the car, depending on the severity of the exchange, one is faced with a marriage whose seams are being tested and therefore starting to show.

High school sweethearts, Qing mentions almost scoffingly, as she drives the conversation to sculpt into clarity where she stands with him and vice-versa and he drives the vehicle. Many issues, in fact, crop up during the conversation that wavers between argument, confrontation, and confession: money, in-laws, (not) playing one’s parental part in support of the other. The conversation ultimately becomes argument, confrontation, and confession all at once with Qing’s simple question: “Did you meet her?” Throughout it all, Xiaoshuo is the witness (along with the viewer) of the conversation, which also consists of both of her parents slightly using her as leverage.

The second portion of this first segment also accounts for it being the strongest of the film, as Qing and Xiaozhen’s conversation takes a different form due to the changed environment (the only scene that does not take place in a car). Upon arriving at Qing’s grandfather’s place and before going inside, Qing and Xiaozhen have a moment of looking at each other that is abruptly punctuated by a slap in the face. Once the three are inside the grandfather’s room, Qing and Xiaozhen passively continue their conversation, with Xiaoshuo as the intermediary, and Qing attempts to talk to her ill and bed-ridden grandfather. The audio closely picking up the ticking of a clock (unplanned or otherwise) as these two situations simultaneously unfold is quite striking in its aptness.

The “later” to which the first intertitle refers separates the first and second segments and finds Qing and Xiaozhen back on the road and the camera focused on Qing in the backseat while Xiaozhen drives. Soon after, however, Xiaozhen stops the car to join Qing in the backseat and continue their conversation as day turns into night. Xiaozhen’s “Why do you hit me?” and Qing’s “Why shouldn’t I hit you?” encapsulate not necessarily the physicality of their conversation but rather the clash of logics at work. To be sure, this protracted scene has its share of cheek-pinching and spitting, as Qing maintains her stance of desiring a divorce and Xiaozhen tries to apologise and patch things up.

By the time another intertitle appears that announces the film’s director and title — nearly an hour into the film — nothing is resolved. Moreover, the ambiguity of the film’s status is amplified, as this more than twenty-minute long take concludes with Qing looking straight into the camera after a bout of crying with Xiaozhen by her side and an exchange of “it’s just acting” and “I went too far to make this film.” In this regard, this second segment matches the interest and strength of the first segment, both tonally and thematically, with the emotion and antagonistic rapport between Qing and Xiaozhen being the main draw in all of their immediacy.

The third and final segment of the film follows the temporal continuity of the second with a nocturnal scene of Xiaozhen still behind the wheel and picking up Qing for a drive. However, this time, Qing plays a woman named Li who wears glasses and, as it turns out, is the woman to whom Qing refers in “Did you meet her?” in the first segment. Furthermore, the scene refers to an earlier period of time, when Qing and Xiaozhen were not yet married. And lastly, the camera is mounted on the hood of the car. Unfortunately, these changes sacrifice the emotional intimacy and immediacy that characterise and build up through the first and second segments. Consquently, the interest level drops substantially and the weight of the long take becomes all but burdensome.

For all its self-reflexive moments, the film certainly addresses filmmaking as a process of self-realization, especially in the third segment. The weaponization of the camera as well as of the very process of filming is also at work here. But by the time both Qing and Xiaozhen break down into tears, the effect is much more humorous than anything else and one can ascribe absurdist irony (or even satire) as perhaps Wang’s underlying motivation.