Watching The Equation of Love and Death (李米的猜想) is, at times, unexpectedly enthralling. Much like its enigmatic characters, the film is a restless mystery about lost love and obsession, with shady criminal elements thrown in.
Chinese writer and director Cao Baoping (曹保平) deserves praise for his original style, but without Zhou Xun’s (周迅) absorbing performance, the film’s lack of narrative would have been disappointing.
The Equation opens by examining the restless state of its heroine’s mind. Li Mi (Zhou Xun) is a chain-smoking taxi driver who compulsively counts out numbers and poses strange questions to her bewildered passengers. The source of Li’s anguish is her boyfriend, Fang Wen (Deng Chao, 鄧超), who disappeared four years ago but continues to send her letters that she religiously memorizes and guards ferociously.
On a typical hazy day in Kunming, Li parrots her usual quandaries to two rural hick-type passengers played by Wang Yanhui (王硯輝) and Wang Baoqiang (王寶強).
When she nips off to get change, the pair steal her cherished album of Fang’s photos and off they go to meet a contact on a bridge. However, they reach their destination only to and find someone else there, a poetry-gushing man who as they approach falls to his death.
The man lands on a car being driven by Ma Bing (also Deng) and his female companion Feifei (Wang Ning, 王寧). When Ma gets out to check the man, he sees an album drop from the bridge above, which is filled with pictures of himself.
From that point on, Li is thrown into a web of coincidence and intrigue involving mistaken and changed identity, hostage-taking and drug-trafficking that bring her closer and closer to the love of her life.
The film’s melancholic palette of blue-green hues sets the tone as the bustling city of Kunming feels as if it’s all traffic, highways and cars full of faceless riders and isolated drivers.
Director Cao does an effective job of sustaining an air of mystery while revealing a chain of events that gradually pieces the puzzle together. Audiences must stay alert while following the characters, who lurch from one mess to another.
Dramatic momentum is maintained throughout the 96-minute-long film. However, the coincidences, and unexpected turns and twists that move the plot forward may strike some as a bit too contrived, which obscures the narrative thread.
On the other hand, what matters most may not be the plot, but the emotions, heightened tension and motivations that make each character three-dimensional. There is Fang Wen, a poor urban youth who breaks the law to survive. The role, played by young actor Wang Baoqiang, represents the heart of rural China where farmers can no longer make a living off the land and are forced to work in the underbellies of the country’s cities.
However, it is Zhou who carries the movie from beginning to end. As the foul-mouthed, lovelorn cabby, she admirably runs the emotional gamut from frantic and frightened to desperate and heartbroken. Though showy acting is sometimes demanded by the script, the actress never loses her poise and delivers a virtuoso performance that cements her repute as one of the best actresses working in China today.
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