On October 22, the film Love After Love (第一炉香), an adaptation of a novella by iconic Chinese-American writer Eileen Chang, premiered in China. Directed by Ann Hui, Love After Love is based on Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier and follows the story of Ge Weilong, who moves to Hong Kong for school but finds herself drowning in her desire for money and status while losing her chastity and dignity.
This is Hui’s third adaptation of an Eileen Chang story, following Love in a Fallen City and Eighteen Springs. The latter film didn’t impress US fans, garnering an audience rating of 52% on Rotten Tomatoes, an American review-aggregation platform.
For this recent adaptation, Hui cast well-known actors Ma Sichun, Eddie Peng, and Faye Yu. In an interview, Hui shared that she was interested in the story of Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier because it is both a love story and a tale that sheds light on life in colonial Hong Kong.
But her third stab at an Eileen Chang story was not the charm in this case.
Despite a recognizable cast and Hui’s previous experience adapting Chang’s work, Chinese viewers are unimpressed. The film’s current rating on the Chinese review-aggregation website Douban stands at 5.5 out of 10 at the time of writing.
What’s more, it’s clear that Chinese netizens are eager to show their dislike of the film, with the topic ‘What exactly went wrong in Love After Love’ being viewed more than 270 million times on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.
Many netizens sharing their thoughts on Weibo felt that the two lead actors were simply not a good fit with their characters.
“The character George Qiao in the novella is supposed to be a little feminine, but Eddie Peng is not like that at all. Ge Weilong is also supposed to be smart and beautiful, but Ma Sichun failed to portray that naturally,” one user wrote.
Eddie Peng as George Qiao. Image via Weibo
Another netizen wrote, “Ma’s acting did not show the part of Ge Weilong that’s interested in money and status. Instead, the character becomes a different person who is only interested in romance.”
Other netizens suggested that the film did a poor job capturing critical details in the novella.
One Chinese film blogger made a video explaining, “In Chang’s novella, when Ge Weilong sees beautiful clothes, she figures out her aunt’s plan to use her to seduce men. But in the movie, it is the maid who points it out.”
Similarly, another netizen posted that “The character Qiao is supposed to be scared of snakes, but Qiao has a snake as a pet in the movie. It is ridiculous.”
Some believe that Hui and the cast simply did not understand Chang’s work. “The novella reflects the heaviness and bleakness in life, but the movie failed to do that,” wrote @YoKiee_Z.
Finally, another netizen pointed out that actor Ma Sichun also misunderstood the meaning of Chang’s work, writing, “Before the film premiered, Ma posted her impression of the novella, and she thought her character was forced to give up her dignity for love. But in the book, the character voluntarily gives up her dignity because of her desire for money.”
Ma Sichun as Ge Weilong. Image via Weibo.
It is noteworthy, however, that some netizens have been critical of the overwhelmingly negative feedback for the film. User @McCullers777 argued, “The idea that you have to understand Chang’s work to make a good adaptation is just ridiculous. Does Hui really have to understand the novella to make this film?”
RADII’s own Mavis Lee might disagree. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lee recently watched the film and was disappointed, to say the least.
“Eileen Chang’s literary meditation on romantic longing and emotional decadence falls victim to questionable casting,” says Lee. “My ability to empathize was completely stunted as, on-screen, Weilong voluntarily locks herself in a cage of artificial, worldly desires, gazing into a gilded but hollow part of Hong Kong that glorifies colonialism and internalized racism.”
Cover image via Weibo
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