Jane Austen's Emma gets a modern day Chinese twist in this film about a popular radio Agony Uncle Chen Mo who gets dumped live on air by his unimpressed girlfriend. In a classic display of #MasculinitySoFragile, he subsequently self-sabotages his life, giving irresponsible, half-assed responses on his show, causing his ratings to plummet. He is assigned a callow young intern, who has an uncharacteristic outburst on the show when one of his callers insults him. This leads his fortunes to reverse, leading him to believe he could win his ex-girlfriend back after all.
There are also various subplots in I Belonged to You, of varying degrees of interest. Mo's inventor cousin and a policewoman who flagrantly abuses her position to chase him around is a cute courtship. His friend Chubby, besotted with a woman several times his attractiveness quotient and working nonstop to send her money, a pairing which seems doomed from the get-go. The protagonist's mother suffers from Alzheimer's, a story arc which fails to give the illness the sensitive treatment it deserves.
I Belonged to You suffers from a complete absence of nuance (the policewoman's fancy for the nerdy cousin is apparent from the first second she looks at him), and characters seem to get from A to B with implausible alacrity, although both are traits common to most Chinese media, so I can't judge it too harshly for that.
What the film did have going for it was that the solipsistic protagonist, whilst unbearably annoying for the majority of the running time, reminded me of myself. (Not even gonna go there). The way he threw his toys out of the pram and repeatedly insulted his ex whilst hedging a bet with her, for which the prize if he won was that he would marry her (he frames this as doing her a favour as she's so ugly, obvs) is petulant and unappetising, but I would be lying if I were to say it didn't mirror the way I behave when suffering from the pangs of disappointed love.
Because of the central character being such a 3D one who does exhibit genuine growth as the film progresses, I'll overlook the fact that he's supposed to have been at university four years ago, putting him in the 25-28 age bracket, yet the actor playing him, Chao Deng, sports grey hair.
The two female love interests: the ex and the lovestruck intern, are both well cast, even if they could do with learning from Saoirse Ronan and Emily Blunt in the crying-on-screen stakes. (Again, I don't think Chinese film stars are exposed to the same training that western ones are, so I will forgive this hiccup as well).
Both give good portrayals of the characters they're playing: Du Juan capturing the pragmatism of the ex. It is a credit to the astute screenplay that this film doesn't demonize the woman who dumped the protagonist, rather, illustrate her as sensible woman who's outgrown her immature paramour.
As Birdie, Bai Baihe represents Mo's potential for happiness. Bai brings some real pathos to the ‘Ugly Ducking’ trope, who's looks improve through the course of the film, as the character gains confidence. She and Chao Deng have some sweet chemistry together and she gives a moving depiction of a nice girl who would forgo her own feelings to see the man she loves happy.
The love triangle at the centre of I Belonged to You is much more engaging and more emotionally honest than that in the awful Silver Linings Playbook, which is celebrated despite the fact that Tiffany brazenly manipulated Pat. That said, the film does not quite have the polished edge to compete with Woody Allen’s witty Café Society, which had not one but two love triangles.
The film is not without its flaws - for its genre, the running time really should be trimmed by at least 20 minutes. The flip side for it being longer than it should have been, however, was the payout, when it came, felt surprisingly rewarding, and richly merited for the audience, given the plot took a few dark turns that I was not expecting.
Not perfect, then, but a damn sight better than the last Chinese movie I watched.