Only Cloud Knows (China, 2019)
An old screenwriting adage goes something like this: “Whatever you do, don’t kill the dog!” Among other things, the phrase refers to the fact that the death of a pet makes for a relatively cheap way of getting an emotional response out of the audience. It is so easy as to be considered cheating. I bring this up because I believe it is the perfect metaphor for Feng Xiaogang’s latest film, Only Cloud Knows, a well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing 132-minute experience that leans too heavily on worn-out tropes and contrived melodrama.
Told predominantly through flashbacks, the plot in Only Cloud Knows revolves around the idyllic life of married couple Dongfeng Sui (Huang Xuan) and Yun Luo (Yang Caiyu ), two Chinese expatriates living in New Zealand. After Yun’s death, Dongfeng decides to visit his wife’s favorite places to scatter her ashes. Each new location floods Dongfeng with memories of his and his wife’s life there, bringing him towards tears and, sometimes, towards new realizations.
The couple met in Auckland and almost immediately fell in love with each other. Following their marriage, Yun and Dongfeng move to Clyde, a small town in the southern island, where they open a Chinese restaurant that lasts for the next 15 years, until it burns down and forces them to relocate back to Auckland. Dongfeng’s recollections throughout the movie are scattered and episodic, although they share one factor in common: Dongfeng is Yun’s perennial protector, from the trivial to the life-threatening, and remains so until the end of her life.
Only Cloud Knows may be considered as what was once upon a time called a “chick flick” – a sappy, over-the-top melodrama targeted primarily at women (or so people thought). While I can’t say much about demographics, the “sappy over-the-top melodrama” part is right on point. Only Cloud Knows aims so strongly to be a successful tearjerker, that everything in the film – the plot, the music, the acting, even the badly translated English dialogue – works desperately towards that end. Every element of the film feels like it must neatly fit into a well-massaged formula of sadness. It is the kind of film that you have undoubtedly seen many times before, so riddled with clichés that it might have very well been the final project of an “Intro to Melodrama” class.
Even so, that could have worked with a more unique plot and cast of characters. Based on the true story of the director’s friend and collaborator, Only Cloud Knows does possess an undeniable kernel of authenticity, but it unfortunately does not compensate for the lackluster storytelling. Perhaps director Feng was too close to the subject matter to realize that, quite frankly, there’s nothing interesting about these characters. In fact, they’re so stereotypical as to be outright boring. Dongfeng is painted as the perfect husband (an actual line of dialogue in the film!) that any woman would be lucky to have. Yun, on the other hand, is mainly relegated to the role of the “damsel in distress,” except for the times when she’s merely a prop on screen. The film appears to be so confident in its formula that it never bothers to give the audience a good reason to care for the characters. They’re only there because they must.
The film’s one saving grace is the stunning cinematography of Zhao Xiaoding, who makes excellent use of New Zealand’s oneiric landscape. From Auckland’s skyscrapers, to the Southern Lights, or the Kiwi riviera, the scenery is so beautiful that bears endless admiration. I also found Feng’s choice of location – New Zealand rather than China – quite interesting, especially given the film’s final proclamation regarding one’s true home. Instead of returning to China, Dongfeng chooses to remain in New Zealand and continue his life there. A daring statement.
Though I’m certain that Only Cloud Knows will find its audience, as these kinds of melodramas often do, it’s a rather forgettable romance, one among hundred others just like it. Feng’s honesty and devotion to his friend merit some admiration, but his impulse to “play it safe” strips the film of any originality it might have had.