Soulmate (China, 2016)

Certain close female friendships, at least those portrayed in film, have a way of straddling the line between friendship and romance with such delicacy that is downright heartbreaking to watch. Qiyue (Ma Sichun) and Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu), the BFFs of Derek Tsang’s Soulmate (2016), are a pair that belong with each other, platonically and romantically, but continually succumb to their own heteronormative imaginations and the film’s cheap plot devices. Their inseparable and, at times, contentious bond is stronger than that of most romantic relationships we see on screen, and although the film suggests, many times over, that their bond transcends friendship, it prefers to sentimentalize rather than to embrace it.

The incredibly love story is introduced as a hit internet novel in China that a shocked Ansheng discovers from a book publisher, who tells her that her now estranged best friend, Qiyue, has written it. The novel begins when the best friends are thirteen. The sweet-looking Qiyue and rambunctious Ansheng are struck by each other’s enticing innocence in a heartwarming meet-cute, while practicing a morning exercise routine at school. They become inseparable despite their differences in socioeconomic background and personalities. Ansheng begins to spend a substantial amount of time at Qiyue’s due to her estranged relationship with her own neglectful mother, to a point where she basically becomes another daughter of Qiyue’s affable parents (Gang Cai and Ping Li). The two girls’ closeness is not only endearing, but also tactfully crosses the line to the sensual, as they routinely shower together and ask to see each other’s breasts (the film makes it clear they are going through puberty the first time it happens.)

The catalyst of the later agonizing drama between the lovebirds is a dreamy but dim-witted jock, Su Jiaming (Toby Lee). We can almost feel the world tumbling down on Ansheng when Qiyue announces that she has a crush on Jiaming, who goes to Qiyue’s high school. Already quit school and working at a local bar as a teenager, Ansheng endures the jealousy and confronts Jiaming at school, warning him to treat his ‘secret admirer’ nicely. Unexpectedly, this encounter only arouses Jiaming’s interest in Ansheng, which, from this moment on, is notably more potent than that in Qiyue. The innocent Qiyue soon confesses her love to Jiaming, who reciprocates affection out of complacency. Their romance is, however sweet, always a strain on the best friends’ relationship, and a telling moment between Ansheng and Jiaming shows us the endless jealousy and heartbreaks that will surely follow the girls’ lives as they grow up.

The first moment of heartbreak arrives at Ansheng’s departure from their unspecified hometown, taken by her aimlessness and spontaneity on a drifter’s journey around the world, while Qiyue stays to finish college. The two keep in touch over letters and postcards, and only get to see each other once every few years. Although they always return to being the lovebirds we know when they see each other, growing apart magnifies the deep-seeded friction between the two, especially when it comes to Jiaming’s role in their relationship. It is a love triangle that perhaps goes in all three directions, but only the one between the two girls actually matters. Life drives the two apart time after time, even switching their paths of drifter and homebody, and the story resolves itself through a couple of melodramatic twists in the third act, emphatically marking the two as star-crossed lovers.

The film’s formidable lead performances by Zhou and Ma made history with the first-ever joint Best Actress win at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards in 2016, a fact that is both stunning and unsurprising. Their performances make us wish we had a relationship like that in the film. They not only captivate visually and elicit an emotional roller-coaster ride, but also effectively make up for the contrived melodrama in the writing and directing. Like many great screen performances, theirs involve balancing a wide range of tones, from juvenile comedy to straight melodrama, portraying their characters through adolescence into adulthood, and most of all, realizing two convoluted yet inevitable character arcs that both crush and lift our souls.

If their individual performances indicate impeccable craft, Zhou and Ma’s on-screen chemistry manifests art. The subtle and quirky differences between the two — Zhou’s petite frame and Ma’s lean physique, Zhou’s bouncy energy and Ma’s grounded poise, Zhou’s carefree demeanor and Ma’s mousy looks — are only a few details that create a yin-yang dynamic between the two, which upholds itself even when the yin switches with the yang as the characters transform over the years. In a similar way, Zhou and Ma’s dissimilar acting backgrounds complement each other: Zhou’s first acting experience came only in 2010, when director Zhang Yimou, citing her innocent disposition, picked her among 10,000 actresses to star as Jingqiu in The Love of the Hawthorn Tree; Ma began her career as a child actress at age 13, when she appeared in the TV Series The Grand Mansion Gate (2000), and grew up with an acting mentor, her aunt, the acclaimed actress Jiang Wenli. As such, Zhou’s raw intensity of a new artist is the yin to the yang of Ma’s skilled restraint of a seasoned thespian.

The dynamic duo in Zhou and Ma almost helps us forgive the few flaws in the screenplay, which fall on key plot points, borrowing from the Korean-Drama school of tearjerking. Otherwise, it does a neat job of depicting a relationship that feels deeply personal yet conspicuously familiar. We can all relate to hurting and being hurt by a loved one because of an overbearing judgement, witnessing a perfectly loving relationship crumble over time, and finding the same innocent love with someone after years of meeting them for the first time. The screenplay, written by Lam Wing Sum, Li Yuan, Xu Yi-meng and Wu Nan, understands the strength and simplicity of this fact, which I suspect is one of the reasons it was nominated for Best Screenplay at the Golden Horse.

In her acceptance speech at the Golden Horse, Ma expresses the significance of sharing her Best Actress prize with Zhou, that “Qiyue and Ansheng” are meant to be united as one. It is this exact sentiment that the film leaves us with, one that perhaps erodes our stringent boundaries between close friendships and romance in the most beautiful way possible.