SoulMate, directed by Derek Tsang, follows two friends from childhood to adulthood. Li Ansheng, played by Zhou Dongyu, is a quick-witted wild child who decides to forgo higher education in order to explore and experience the world. Her counterpart and polar opposite is the stable and guarded Lin (July) Qiyue, played by Sandra Ma, who has chosen a more practical path. The women’s long relationship — they meet at 13 — is tested by the introduction of a shared love interest and by lifestyle choices that become increasingly polarized. It is the story of how growing up can upset even the most sacred friendships.
Derek Tsang makes a game of playing into some conventions while fighting against others. The score throughout the film is emotional, and at times sappy, but it does pull viewers into the story. The love triangle narrative is equally clichéd, but Tsang tackles it in a refreshing way. In this film, the male love interest, Su Jiaming (Toby Lee), plays only a supporting role. The women’s relationship comes first by a long shot, with much richer dialogue and more impactful screen time. Ansheng and July don’t fall into the trope of being girl friends fighting over a boy.
Both women are flawed and at times wholly unlikable, which adds an ominous subtext to the otherwise bittersweet romantic film.
The women’s characters also defy being boxed in thanks to nuanced performances and intelligent writing. Ansheng has all the markers of being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, playing the cute and carefree flirt, but her defensiveness and combination of selfish and selfless acts make her much more surprising and realistic. On the surface, July is less complex, but her bitterness seeps out during some tenser scenes. Both women are flawed and at times wholly unlikable, which adds an ominous subtext to the otherwise bittersweet romantic film.
In the tradition of Hong Kong melodrama, SoulMate has several twist endings. Although each plot point is well acted and affecting, the amount of twists becomes distracting and distancing, and is definitely not ideal for the climax of a film. However, a lot of character development occurs in these sequences, making them crucial. Another aspect that was sometimes detrimental was the overwhelming amount of crying in the film. Both actresses had a few scenes in which their tears were incredibly realistic and moving, but there a were other moments where the crying felt like overkill. Still, it did not take much away from the movie, which left almost every person in the theatre misty-eyed, the audience seemingly taking a cue from the leads.
SoulMate is driven by the chemistry between the two leads. The plot is exciting, but it is the depth of their relationship that keeps the film engaging. In many scenes the exact nature of their relationship is ambiguous, seeming almost too romantic to be purely platonic. This pattern, coupled with the connotations of the English title and the visuals of almost all the movie posters, begs the question of whether this is a lesbian romance disguised as a study in platonic love (coming from a country where the former is unlikely to be produced in this fashion). Either way, it is a heart-wrenching, relatable film that will linger with viewers long after the credits roll.
SoulMate is available for purchase through iTunes.