Cinema is not interested in perfect love stories. Cinema is interested in the wreckage, in the torment, in the heartbreak. Whether it’s delivered via illness, accident, infidelity or mere circumstance, cinema thrives in the tragic wreckage of a failed relationship.
From Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945), through Ryan O’Neal and Ali Macgraw in Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970), right up to Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016), time and time again audiences have been rapt by stories of imperfect romances, of loves and, ultimately, losses.
We can add two more names to this list; those of Han Dongjun and Zhuang Zhiqi, the talented pair at the heart of Michael Wong’s debut short, The Story of 90 Coins (2015). Zhuang portrays Chen Wen; a young fashion designer who has hit a crossroads in her life. On one side: boyfriend Wang Yuyang (Han). On the other: adventure, a blossoming career, a move to Europe, and a good-looking French colleague named Andre.
Therein lies the emotional impact of Wong’s film. Chen Wen’s position is a familiar one; devoted partner, a sense of ‘the grass could be greener’, the urgency of youth and career pushing her forward. At the same time, YuYang’s position is also recognisable; a relationship whose fire has burned out, a loved one who is slipping away.
There can be few amongst us who do not recognise ourselves in either Chen Wen, YuYang, or both. This is what makes the film interesting; that pang of ‘what might have been?’ or ‘what if I’d done something differently?’
It seems those who have been struck by these questions are not alone. The film has achieved significant critical success since its original release in 2015, and has been shortlisted at many international film festivals, scooping major awards at the Whatashort India International Film Festival and at the Canada International Film Festival.
This is not Wong’s his first foray behind the camera. The Malaysian-born director spent 16 years as an art and creative director in the advertisement business, working with several of the world’s leading ad agencies.
Fans of an objective, philosophical examination of love and life and loss may be left a little cold by the ending, however, in which Wong opts for a somewhat heavy-handed bit of moralisation. The film’s coda of “Don’t let a promise just be a beautiful memory” is sweet and succinct, but perhaps the judgment it passes on one of the characters is too harsh. What had been, up until this point, a ruminative and dreamlike film punctuated with some stunning Beijing cityscape cinematography and a minimalist piano soundtrack, suddenly becomes a parable; a fable aimed at ensuring that young people make the right life choices. Young people, as many of us know from experience, very rarely make the right life choices.
The Story of 90 Coins is gorgeously shot, well directed, and carries promising performances from the leading actors. Han Dongjun is already something of a star in his home nation of China, thanks to a turn in the lead role of TV series Wuxin: Monster Killer. A similarly high profile role for Zhuang Zhiqi might not be far behind.
Michael Wong’s debut is available here on Vimeo.