Director – Yusheng Tian – 2023 – China – Cert. PG – 129m
A man in a trial marriage attempts to help his best friend, on the rebound from a failed relationship, navigate the process of finding a new partner – out in UK cinemas on Friday, October 6th
Chinese writer-director Tian’s romantic franchise, now on its fourth entry, has built its previous instalments around characters whose former partners interfere one way or another with their current, ongoing, attempts at relationships. Meng Yun (Han Geng), a character from the original The Ex-Files (2014) is single again following events in The Ex-Files 3: Return Of The Exes (2017), while the relationship of regular character Yu Fei (Zheng Kai) with girlfriend Ding Dian (Zeng Mengxue) has settled down into some sort of stability.
The latter couple are eating out when she suggests, more on a whim than from any basis in fact, that she might be pregnant. His offer to marry her were that to be the case is met with a degree of disbelief in her arguments about being an independent woman, so they agree to a trial marriage. Yu Fei juggles this with trying to help the single Meng find love, enrolling him in a dating site and offering advice as things develop.
Yu Fei and Ding Dian’s trial marriagethrows up various issues of living together, explored in an evening where the couple turn listing the things they find difficult about each other into a marathon drinking game knocking back shots. Just as they move on to each other’s more likeable aspects, she passes out. This is actually the first of three drinking sessions scattered throughout the film, with another discussing household expenses – and each other’s incomes – and a third discussing the problem of exes and what to do if either of them cheat on each other during marriage.
Meng, meanwhile, finds himself on a date with post-relationship and divorce lawyer Liu Liu (Liu Yase), with whom he seems to hit it off immediately. At this point, Ding Dian mentions to Yu Fei that Meng’s ex Lin Jia ( Kelly Yu) is back in town and thinks she might be able to reunite them. But when the couple take Meng out to dinner, he dismisses the idea. Then Jia arrives – with her young son in tow. Meng and Jia chat on the balcony – he’s given up smoking, but she’s taken it up.
Now Yu Fei and Ding Ding are wondering – along with the entire audience – whether Meng is the father of Jia’s child. Be that as it may, as Meng and Jia chat, it becomes clear that, like Meng, Jia is convinced their relationship, which lasted five years, is now a thing of the past. When she left, it was a surreptitious sneaking off, so she sees this current meeting as the chance to say goodbye properly. Cue a flashback montage of their relationship, presumably made up of scenes from the third film.
That montage seems to set the tone for much of what is to follow. Both men grapple with the related ideas of freedom of being solitary and being chained up by being in a relationship; in Meng’s case, it’s suggested that he is too set in the comfort zone of his solitary existence to leave it and enter into a relationship that will restrict his freedom, even though he seems to have found the perfect partner in Liu Liu.
Quite a few relationship flashback montages litter the last hour or so of the film, which seems to alternate various discussions or character voice-overs on the ups and downs of relationships with wallowing in such sequences. It all washes over the viewer in a pleasant, possibly even an enjoyable, sort of way without offering any real conclusions on the subject. For the finale, Meng gets to reflect on various pieces of advice assorted exes have offered him over the years.
Phoning Liu Liu on one occasion, Meng discovers they both attended a Studio Ghibli / Joe Hisaishi concert on the same night, with him sitting unawares in the seat behind her. She later brings a couple of bottles to his flat for the evening, he cooks, and they talk at length about the differences between love and marriage. Which could easily have been deadly dull, but on this occasion somehow isn’t.
In a coda to the narrative, one year after everything else that has occurred, Meng orders noodles at a local café and makes an origami rabbit head out of a napkin. Later, after he’s gone, Liu Liu comes in, orders noodles and notices the origami rabbit head and paints it with lipstick and black ink. Chinese pop songs on the soundtrack underscore the idea that relationships have a course to run, which can be good, but then their time comes and they are over. Just the way things are.
Considering this is supposed to be a film about relationships, it’s extraordinary that there is so little physical sex in it. So little as in, none whatsoever. It’s almost as if the whole had been conceived by someone who wanted to excise the physical aspects from relationships, which is, frankly, just plain weird. Not that there’s anything wrong with friendships between members of the opposite sexes in which no physical activity is involved, just that’s not the totality of sexual relationships. As I say, weird.
The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plan is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, October 6th.