Feature film production in mainland China can be broadly divided into two camps: state-approved releases (commercial product with politics that toe the party line) and underground critique (d-generation efforts shot quickly for festival submission). The Equation of Love and Death, the second feature by Cao Baoping following his black comedy Guangrongde Fennu (2006), is an interesting hybrid that combines elements of mainstream cinema (the director operates within a thriller framework, this is clearly a star vehicle for the considerable talents of leading lady Zhou Xun) with characteristics of the underground sector (most of the principal characters exist at lower levels of society, there are sudden flashes of violence, references to heroin addiction and scenes shot in unappealing roadside locations). Although this is a co-production between Chinese studio Huayi Brothers and Hong Kong financier Sundream Motion Pictures, the stylish cinematography by Yang Shu indicates the influence of the mainland independent sector as the perpetually overcast city locations are captured in shades of steely grey. The negative social representations can mostly be found in the first half of The Equation of Love and Death, suggesting one of the toughest films to date to receive the ‘Dragon Seal’, the stamp of approval from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television that appears before the opening credits of all official mainland releases. However, the second half shows signs of compromise by acknowledging state authority over all aspects of life in the People’s Republic (the police department resolves the drama, both legal and personal). Such concessions aside, Cao still delivers a consistently intriguing thriller.
Events unfold in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in Southwest China. Li Mi (Zhou) is a chain-smoking taxi driver, barely scraping a living by transporting natives and transients around the city while waiting for her missing boyfriend Fang Wen to return. Fang Wen’s extended absence of four years, not to mention the elusive nature of his contact – he writes letters to Li Mi but does not provide sender address details or any clues as to which city he may be working in – have made his girlfriend emotionally unstable and borderline obsessive. She tells her passengers about her personal situation, probably leaving some wishing that they had taken the public bus instead. ‘Why don’t you stop reading the letters?’ and ‘Why don’t you move away?’ are among the suggestions offered, only for Li Mi to assert, ‘He’s out there somewhere.’ As a cinematic taxi driver, Li Mi is comparable to Max in Collateral (2004) in terms of denial regarding life in limbo; ‘Nothing has changed’ is her view of Kunming, although rapid urbanisation is evident. Further distress occurs when Li Mi picks up two passengers who seem to be bumbling visitors to Kunming, but then kidnap her at knifepoint and attempt to extort 2,000 RMB in order to fly to Guangzhou. Following the usual thriller set-pieces (quietly trying to alert a gas station attendant to her predicament, a car that threatens to stall), Li Mi manages to escape, subsequently learning that her desperate captors have a professional connection to Fang Wen, who is back in town with a new name.
With its atmospheric visual palette of noir urbanisms and characters on the social margins, The Equation of Love and Death recalls Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Close to Paradise (1998), which was belatedly released after many re-edits, and Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (2000), which remains banned on the mainland. Li Mi explains that she and Fang Wen were unremarkable high school students who failed to pass college entrance exams, while one of her captors forcefully insists, ‘You think I like doing this? Without the money, I can’t go home.’ The presence of Zhou, who starred in Suzhou River, serves as a direct connection to Lou’s earlier genre piece, although Li Mi is almost relegated to the status of supporting player in her own story once police detective Ye Qingcheng (Zhang Hanyu) takes over her case and, to some extent, the rest of the film. No-nonsense yet sympathetic, the detective insists that there are, ‘no private matters where I’m concerned’, and proceeds to efficiently tie related strands together, emphasising overarching state control. The use of multiple plot threads to create an interconnected mystery prompted festival circuit comparisons to Memento (2000), and while some of the coincidences here may stretch credibility, Cao’s scenario is no less contrived than the American thrillers that probably served as his conceptual models. The Equation of Love and Death may struggle to maintain its initial grip, but Zhou is excellent throughout and Cao’s ruminations on the nature of human connection in an accelerated society convey a sense of existential anxiety that rarely permeates the surface of state-approved Chinese cinema.