The Reel Asian Film Festival kicks off Tuesday, November 8, 2016 with Derek Tsang’s Soul Mate. A moving tale of friendship between two young women that is put to the test when a young man enters their life, soon followed by other harsh realities that growing up can bring. This is the story of 20 years portraying the ebb and flow of a relationship between two women.
Ansheng and Qiyue become friends amidst a moment of mischief in the schoolyard when they are 13 and form a bond that will connect them for better or worse throughout their lives, in which they will share their most inner desires, secrets, and dreams. Each girl’s admiration for the other entwines them, but in moments of jealousy also rips them apart. The wedge causing their greatest divide being Jia-Ming, Qiyue’s boyfriend whose devotion and repressed emotions could destroy them all.
It’s limiting to classify any film as appealing to one particular gender, but if there was ever a film targeting young women and marginalizing the importance of males, Soul Mate might be it. On one hand it’s nice to see a film focusing on female friendships that don’t rely on physical comedy gags, or cliché man-hating rants. Soul Mate truly centralizes on Qiyue and Ansheng, with the male lead Jia-Ming present in a clearly-defined supporting role. Jia-Ming’s character is somewhat weak, and given the length of time he’s actually present in the film, there’s little detail and development. One can’t help but notice he’s only ever present to be led around by one of the girls, to help them, or be told what to do by one of them.
In their portrayals of traditional good girl Qiyue (Ma Sichun) and wild child Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu), both actresses nail their parts. Zhou Dongyu shines in her spirited performance as Ansheng, who hides her pain behind a bright smile, burying her troubles in unbridled partying, the never ending search for new experiences, and chameleonic tendencies to find herself a place in the world. She moves through life and the screen transitioning seamlessly from apathetic to tender as if they were cut from the same emotional cloth. Qiyue’s restricted character requires Ma Sichun to refrain from such emotional range, but in climatic moments she holds her own against Zhou Dongyu’s Ansheng.
Based on the Chinese novella, July and Ansheng, Soul Mate with its coming-of-age themes also gives us a very genuine view of a platonic friendship between adolescent girls and how this continues to evolve as they reach adulthood. The plot is simplistic through two thirds of their tale, with twists only incorporated near the end of the timeline. Some events are more surprising than others, but unfortunately these twists also bring into question plausibility and logic. The film has been rooted in realism throughout, to ask the audience to take these leaps of faith at the end distracts them from the full emotional impact director Tsang intends.
For those viewers who are invested enough in the story, it may not matter as they see the ties of Qiyue and Ansheng as the most important aspect of the movie. Soul Mate is captivating and unfolds in manner that keeps the viewer invested. While it does contain imperfections, Soul Mate will leave audiences watery-eyed, and clutching their friends a little closer as they exit the theatre.