Some films last much longer in your mind than their run time. Often it’s because they offer more than a story, they offer a puzzle, something your brain wrestles with for hours after the film. Yao Huang’s PLEASURE. LOVE., a romantic epic in Mandarin, follows two couples years apart, in two distinct chapters. In the first, a young man Jiang Nan (Ying Daizhen) is a destitute writer hung up on the girl next door. One night he meets the older and more experienced Hu Yajie (Yu Nan) at a dance hall. A successful business woman, Hu initiates Jiang into the world of pleasure, and he falls head over heels for her. However, it becomes clear to him that Hu never got over her first love, an older man who left her suddenly (I won’t give away the details).
In the second part, an older man also named Jiang Nan (played now by Gua Xiaodong), a successful business man, meets a young woman named… get this… Hu Yajie (plyed by Yi Sun) at the same dance club. She is drawing on the lampshade – the same lampshade the older Yajie showed the younger Jiang in their earlier sequence, and said she had drawn on ten years earlier. As the couple of the second part embarks on a tempestuous relationship, shadows of the first half hang over their love. A photo this Jiang has taken of Yajie looks strangely like a painting the older Yajie says she painted long ago of a place she visited with her first love. It’s mysterious, it’s evocative, it’s mind-blowing, it’s frankly impossible in the best way. “To me, our lives are limited,” says writer/director Yao Huang, “if you look at it from a bigger picture, we have our predecessors, we have our past generations, and then we have our future generations.”
I had a chance to sit down with Huang after the film’s world premiere at Sundance, a film that took twelve years to come to fruition. If the story sounds dense, I should clear that up. It’s not. Like love, the two parts are incredibly simple, full of powerful emotion that drive the characters to their inevitable heart-break. The performances are strong, the cinematography is lush and gorgeous, and the imagery is like a snapshot from a bygone decade, a perfectly composed memory that reveals everything and yet nothing at the same time. That’s where the film gets complicated, when you really start to dive into the two parts of the story, and how they work together, or don’t. It’s maddening because Huang doesn’t want this to be a simple process for the audience. “What I wanted to share is a concept like the limit of reality,” he tells me, “That’s why there’s the juxtaposition of the younger character versus the older character. The younger character is seen as rash, irrational, and wants to get ahead. And the older character is all very more mature and tolerant. I think most of us want our relationships to be perfect, or well-rounded. But the reality is that we have to go through that journey to get there.”
For me, PLEASURE. LOVE is almost an essay on control. You have a character – if they are same two characters in the second half – you have a situation where one of them is in control in that relationship, and then halfway through, as we enter part two, that flips, now they find themselves in opposite position. Huang agrees, “we can actually think about the younger male character and the older male character may be the same person. When we’re younger, the way we face love and relationship is quite different. This film is really about growth and perspective on love and relationships.”
Except the time passed between the stories, the ages of the characters and some of the details don’t quite add to it being that simple. If this male character is the other one grown up, for that to work, the other character has to be that one, grown… younger. “This is a good question,” the director smiles, “maybe perhaps our lives are continuous?” Yao Huang’s film is almost circular. With an emphasis on the changing seasons, and landscape around the lovers changing from spring to winter as their love turns, Pleasure Love plays out unexpectedly when compared to a traditional ‘western’ one-direction narrative. “It’s a cycle,” Huang says, “from our youth to our maturity we all own that cycle and we gain a lot of knowledge regarding love and relationships from the older generations.” This knowledge can then passed down again to the next generation, creating an ever flowing circle of information, from older to younger. “Once we pass away or leave this universe,” he says, “this knowledge still exists and the tradition of passing down this knowledge continues, and this is life.”
This character ‘reincarnation’ creates an interesting task in casting, two sets of two characters that reflect each other, maybe not identically but thematically. “There are actually a few different concepts to how the characters are related,” the director acknowledges, “one is that they’re all different characters. Or, their characters are the same person in different space and time. Or, it’s actually a continuation, a progression of the same character.” Because of the desire to leave the audience’s experience open-ended, Huang did not even try to cast actors who looked similar, nor did he try to get them to act as the other couple had in similar scenes or location. “I knew that I would be able to do the storytelling in my own way.,” he says, “I wanted the actors to really kind of understand the script and be fully submerged in the story.”
Despite the film taking twelve years to make it to screen, the script itself remained largely unchanged. “The general structure is very similar,” Huang says, “all four characters remain the same, the timeline’s still similar.” With the film really being split down the middle, one section might be almost a roadmap for the second part, but the writer/director says he knew what the second half would be even as he was writing the first half. “You can also think like this,” he suggests, “these two stories are from two different perspectives, the female character and male character, and they kind of intertwine.” Over the years of preproduction, mostly putting together, and losing, and then putting together again funding (just as here in the US), many Chinese A-list actors were attached to the film. “They loved the script very much,” he says, adding the Chinese independent film scene is very similar to the US; “it’s like this, writing a really nice script and trying to get the endorsements of big stars and try to get their support.”
A sensual tale that takes the viewer on a journey of emotion and not reason, Pleasure Love is a beautifully shot and crafted film that will remain in your mind long after the credits roll. It will be interesting to see if Eastern and Western audiences respond differently to the lack of transparency in the storyline, which intentionally frustrates any attempt to pin it down on how the characters are connected. “That’s exactly what I wanted,” Huang confesses, “I really want people to think about the film and make their heads spin a little bit.”
PLEASURE. LOVE. world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and hopefully will be seen at film festivals across the US.