Review of The Contract (China; Zu Qi, 2006), A Fujian Dongyu Film and TV Co. Ltd. & Guangdong Guoshi Cultural Communication Co. Ltd. production.
Director: Lu Xuechang
Producers: Xiao Feng
Screenwriter: Lu Xuechang, Gong Xiangdong
Music: Dong Wei
Cinematographer: Liu Yonghong
Art Director: Sheng Ying
Sound: Yang Jiang
Cast: Pan Yueming as Guo Jiaju, Li Min as Lily
Running time: 98 MIN.
Release in China: 2005.
Available at: http://us.yesasia.com
Shaoyi’s Rating: B+ (Very Good)
Sixth Generation director Lu Xuechang (The Making of the Steel, A Lingering Face, Cala My Dog) does not share the same fame as his schoolmates like Wang Xiaoshuai and Lou Ye, but Lu’s tireless take on the underprivileged people living in the ever changing society of contemporary China pays off in this well scripted and directed film set in modern day Beijing and Fujian. As his previous works, The Contract does not rely on fancy camerawork, lavish sets, breathtaking scenes, and glamorous stars, but succeeds in telling a touching story in a quiet, sometimes even intentionally toned-down manner. Regrettably, partly because of this approach, the film has gone largely unnoticed since its theatrical release. The general public is even unaware of the existence of such a film.
The Contract tells the story of Guo Jiaju (Pan Yueming), a bankrupted Beijing businessman, being called to visit his terminally ill father in the countryside. To bring good fortune to his sick father, Jiaju “rents” a prostitute, Lily (Li Min), to pretend to be his fiancée. Lily is a prostitute on the run, while Guo is looking to dodge a creditor and at the same time needs to return to his hometown to see his dying father. Thus the two find each other a convenient company. Before arriving in the village, they sign a contract, in which Jiaju invents a fake identity for Lily as an elementary school teacher, and in return, he will pay her 2000 yuan for being a “rented” fiancée.
But things turn out to be not as perfect as Jiaju planned. To satisfy his dying father, Jiaju, a filial son by nature, is asked by his mother to formally marry Lily, because it is believed that marriage ceremony could bring happiness and luck. The show must go on. Thus, the unlikely couple goes through a lavish marriage ceremony and, although it fails to save the life of Jiaju’s father, the performed ceremony does make the couple more intimately connected. As the film approaches the end, Lily, emotionally drawn to Jiaju, gets him out of debt trouble with her hard-earned money. Three years later, a financially sound Jiaju reemerges in Beijing, and Lily, on the other hand, is seen pregnant. Will the paths of the two be crossed?
Depicting prostitutes as having inner “good hearts” is nothing new in Chinese cinema. Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess, for example, is about a caring mother/prostitute victimized by the evil force of 1930s’ Shanghai. What makes Lu’s work outstanding is the fact that the director refuses to treat the story in a melodramatic and sentimental way. Even though the two are attracted to each other, they nevertheless go on their own paths after the marriage performance is over. Li Min’s convincing performance as a modern day prostitute in Beijing stands out from the beginning to the end. She is not treated as either a victim or a transformable/redeemable character, but simply as who she is. Acceptable or not, she is a human being who happens to be a prostitute.