A Beautiful Life begins promisingly. It opens in a karaoke bar somewhere in Beijing, with a pretty woman, Li Peiru (Shu Qi), drunkenly singing a cheesy song as an assistant nervously tries to contain the potential embarrassment. We learn that Li is a real-estate agent pushing to close a deal on a flat, and that she’s not averse to implying the offer of a little extra incentive in order to do so. In another room, Fang Zhengdong (Liu Ye) celebrates the engagement of a fellow policeman with a few drinks, being careful not to drink too much, as he must attend to someone later in the evening. Fang’s co-workers, in the tradition of rom-com exposition—rib him for his rigid virtue, which has led, they say, to an unhealthy disinterest in finding a mate of his own.
Indeed, the most relied-on of romantic movie formulas. We’re primed to watch the initially tentative dance between two lonely hearts on opposite sides of the social coin—the whore and the madonna—as they discover in one another a humility and empathy that they had all but given up on finding. But the film, initially at least, has a striking visual style that authentically conveys the woozy intoxication of unexpected love—which is always unexpected. A Beautiful Life has an otherworldly glow. The cool green and blue lights of the city appear to be everywhere, seemingly on the verge of enveloping the future lovers: The only-in-the-movies charge given to Beijing recalls Choose Me, or even some of Alan Rudolph’s dopier films. There’s an emotional heat that’s unapologetically sentimental, but that sentiment is brought back to Earth with the suggestion of the sorts of vaguely implied threats that come with living in many major cities. Even the aspect ratio, which many hack American rom-com directors are gallingly indifferent to, conveys a sense of discombobulation. These lovers, meeting cute, always seem to be bouncing from one end of the screen to the next, out of control. This opening primes us for a sexy, lively wish-fulfillment fantasy.
The visual magnificence shouldn’t be too surprising, as the film has been directed by Andrew Lau, once a cinematographer who worked on films such as the supernaturally gorgeous Chungking Express before moving on to direct most famously the very well-orchestrated Infernal Affairs trilogy. The surprise is how quickly A Beautiful Life deflates, as the film turns into a very long matryr number that bears more than a little resemblance to several 1940s American melodramas. A few people die, a few people grapple with surprise illnesses while surprise reappearances/disappearances abound, and so forth. And the staging, seemingly following suit, comes crashing distressingly close to the realm of the merely competent. A Beautiful Life is strange and a little sad, but not quite in the fashion intended.