Love Education is the first film directed by Sylvia Chang in continental China, and it deals with a theme that is dear to the director’s heart, that of the differences between Chinese women of different generations and, therefore, by deduction also the similarities. From the opening scene of the film, which takes place on an elderly lady’s deathbed, the dynamics of the entire family seem to be laid out unequivocally: Yue Huiying – played by Sylvia Chang herself – is a passionate and emotional woman, who thinks she can read on her dying mother’s lips the thoughts and ideas that she herself believes are right; her husband Yin is a docile creature who seems to be firmly under his wife’s thumb, but is at the same time ironic and a little emotionally detached. We also meet the daughter, Weiwei, who barely tolerates her mother, but who is equally impressionable.
Basically, a family like many others, where tolerance and day-to-day habits often become stand-ins for love.
The fragile equilibrium of the family is put to the test by Huiying’s decision to transfer her father’s grave to the city – he died years back and was buried in the village of his birth – so that he can be close to his wife. Huiying, though, has not taken into consideration Nanna, her father’s first wife who, after years of marriage, stayed back in the village to look after her husband’s parents while he went to the city to look for work, and never once set foot back there during his lifetime. When they go to the village to talk to Nanna, they find themselves before a “Chastity Arch”, monumental arches erected in the village in ancient China in honour of the widows who chose not to remarry, and were thereby celebrated as models of loyalty and chastity, a stark warning for the family about the mentality of the villagers they will encounter… Nanna’s refusal, along with that of her extended family, is immutable in the face of any attempt at persuasion, indeed it becomes almost threatening. Huiying therefore realises that before being able to move her father’s grave, she has to prove the validity of her parents’ marriage. Thus begins a frustrating bureaucratic odyssey Huiying has to complete to find the documents, a narrative element that constantly crops up in satires on contemporary Chinese culture. At the same time, the dynamics within the family are becoming increasingly strained: Weiwei accuses her mother of being insensitive towards Nanna, and she gradually becomes closer to the old woman to whom she feels somehow similar: she also has a boyfriend, Da – an edgy musician – who she thinks is having an affair with an old flame.
Weiwei works in the production team of a TV talk show, and she has discussed the case with her colleagues; she decides to make the most of the situation to create a scoop, with disastrous but liberating consequences for all involved. The chasm between Yin and his wife seems to be growing, he is evermore concentrated on his work as a driving instructor which leads him to frequent encounters with a female neighbour – a cameo appearance by Renne Liu – that Huiying is jealous of. The part of the husband is played with extraordinary unaffectedness by the director Tian Zhuangzhuang in one of his rare outings as an actor, and he seems to be far more cynical than his wife; he keeps telling her how she makes him feel inadequate, that their relationship has been ruined by the financial wellbeing they have acquired over the years, and that even if you live together forever, it doesn’t necessarily mean you love each other. But deep down he hides a romantic side, which comes to the fore in a cathartic conversation with his wife in the final part of the film, set to the music of Cui Jian, a symbol of their generation. Huiying feels lonely, and gets involved in an ambiguous friendship with the father of one of her pupils – she is a teacher who is almost at retirement age, but she doesn’t want to stop working, convinced that her work, rather than her family, is her salvation, despite being a woman of traditional values, like Nanna and even Weiwei. So at the end of the story, the three women, who belong to three different generations and initially appear as different as oil and water, discover themselves to have more similarities than disparities. And the film’s message seems to be that it is never too late to decide to change.
Sylvia Chang (1953, Chiayi, Taiwan). One of the most renowned Chinese actresses, she has appeared in over 100 films in a career spanning over forty years, picking up numerous nominations and awards. Since 1981, she has also worked behind the cameras, directing 14 films so far, which have received prestigious prizes in Taiwan and worldwide. Her work has been the focus of retrospectives in various international film festivals. She is very active in her support for the film industry and of young directors in Hong Kong and Taiwan, serving Vice-Chairwoman of the HKIFF from 2011 to 2014, and as Chairwoman of the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in 2014.
1981 – Once Upon a Time
1986 – Passion
1987 – Yellow Story
1991 – Sisters of the World Unite
1992 – Mary from Beijing
1994 – In Between
1995 – Shao Nu Xiao Yu
1996 – Tonight Nobody Goes Home
1999 – Tempting Heart
2002 – Princess D
2004 – 20 30 40
2008 – Run Papa Run
2015 – Murmurs of the Hearts
2017 – Love Education