We hate to speak ill of the dead, but Chen Yifei, who died before finishing The Music Box might not be the one to blame for how badly this movie sucked, since it was finished by someone else. We had entertained thoughts of seeing this in the theater, but decided to wait for the DVD “release”, and thank the lard we did! This wasn’t so much a movie as it was a filmic sketch of a better movie. The film tells the story of Lu Ping (played by Chen Kun), a very in-demand hairdresser in 1930s Shanghai. Lu’s troubles begin when he (accidentally) kills an invading Japanese soldier by slicing his throat with the razor that he was supposed to shave the man with. Lu flees to the countryside, where he meets Song Jiayi (played by Zeng Li), the love interest. The rest of the film is really nothing more than cliches and contrivances strung together by the well-worn themes of forbidden romances (she’s betrothed to someone else) and the misfortunes of regular Chinese people tossed about by the tumultuous waves of 20th century Chinese history. The romance between Lu and Song is chaste and understated, but unlike In the Mood for Love, for example, there’s no development and no tension — we just have to accept the fact that if you see a shapely woman moving in the shadows or have a jones for metrosexual Chinese men with doleful eyes that you fall in love.
Throughout his travails, whether at the hands of the Japanese, the Nationalists or the Communists, Lu repeats his line about being “just a hairdresser,” and carrying around a suitcase which has both his treasured snipping tools and a record player with his favorite jazz records — a memento of life in Shanghai before his troubles began. All of this reminds of Ge You’s character Fugui in To Live or even the characters of Farewell My Concubine, who throughout the turmoil remain more loyal to their art than to the powers that be. Again, the film’s premises are nothing new, but the execution was terrible — with the possible exception of the two leads, every character is a caricature. The Japanese are cruel, haughty, and horny, the Nationalist generals are conniving, cruel, and horny, and the widows are just plain horny.
Speaking of being horny, why oh why do women get orgasmic when a hairdresser touches their hair? It’s bad enough when you see such scenes in sexualized shampoo commercials, but in a feature film, and one that actually aspired to be more than trash? And why does everyone have to talk in cliches like “If your hair gets messy, you can always do it again, but life … ” or “Women were born to love men with skillful hands … ”
And why are there always stupid coincidences where that person from the beginning of the movie shows up again later at some other point in the movie merely for the sake of making more outrageous plot moves possible. One example: when Lu Ping is in the Communist labor camp doing hard time, he runs into a guy who’s head he had shaved during the years of the resistance. This guy happens to have run into Song Jiayi and of course, delivers a letter to Lu Ping for her. This guy then makes it possible for her to visit him at the labor camp, and in the end, they are reunited, the story ending with the last of the about 100 crane shots used throughout the film — we see them walking off, hand in hand, into the distance, in the middle of a bleak and deserted landscape where there is only one tree. We like landscapes like that, and we like the photographic possibilities of shots like that — but as the final shot of a movie, it’s just a little too played out.
The end of our DVD had some behind the scenes footage of Chen Yifei, which made us feel bad about not liking this movie. Jiang Wen, who was supposed to play the lead, walked out, and then there were rumors that Tony Leung (Liang Chaowei) was going to play the lead opposite Shu Qi. Apologies to Chen Yifei, wherever you are — but two thumbs down for The Music Box.
Also on Shanghaiist:
Chen Yifei’s last film to be released soon
Photo from Xinhua.