Love Au Zen (2000)

Directed by: Derek Chiu
Written by: Raymond To
Producer: Clifton Ko
Starring: Flora Chan, Poon Chan Leung, Andrew Lin, Annie Wu & Ko Ho Man

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Time to meet a new director here at So Good! Well, Derek Chiu has been at it for a few years but Love Au Zen is the first movie of his to reach my dvd-player. With a few critically acclaimed movies behind him (Comeuppance and Sealed With A Kiss), he has been named alongside such other talents like Wilson Yip and Riley Yip. Love Au Zen is based on a novel written by Raymond To (who also penned this script) and it also turned into a stage play with Poon Chan Leung and Ko Ho Man (who reprises his role from the play here).

Ah Sau (Poon Chan Leung) leaves his life and girlfriend Jing (Flora Chan from Dry Wood Fierce Fire) to become a monk. He's been increasingly frustrated with his life and need a break to find himself. He does turn up at his friends Mila (Annie Wu from Winners Take All) and Lam's (Andrew Lin from 2000AD) wedding though but Lam seems to be affected by Ah Sau's presence and hesitates a little answering the all important wedding question. This makes Mila cancel the whole ceremony and Lam joins Ah Sau back to the buddhist temple to contemplate his current situation in life. It's not long before the two women also turn up and under the watchful eye of Master Chi Yuan (Ko Ho Man), the two couples must come to a new understanding about their lives and the love within it...

Writer Raymond To and director Derek Chiu conveys a lot with complicated words during the 96 minute running time. The title and plot doesn't suggest it but Love Au Zen is almost like an abstract web of words & wisedom and we need to follow the characters all the way til the end to fully untangle it. The story is easily set up to get all our characters in the same place and have them try to find their way back to love. Then the movie really hit it's stride.

The pair of Mila and Lam doesn't seem to have a lot of troubles in their relationship until the groom almost chickens out at the altar and goes on the path of buddhism. In actuality neither Mila or Lam really needs this enlightment but it serves as one way to get them going on the right path again. That creates a nice contrast to Jing and Ah Sau's situation. When we hear about his departure, he seems very cold for leaving his loved ones behind without much explanation. That is indeed cold but one must understand that he probably was so desperate to get out, that drastic action had to be done. Even if it isn't mentioned in the film, their relationship couldn't have been very stabile either. In the end the people come to a conclusion after a complex journey through a new religion for them. It's a pretty heavy movie thematically speaking but dialogue also plays a huge part of Love Au Zen. Much of what Raymond To has written is discussions revolving around the thoughts and beliefs of buddhism so you have to pay real close attention to how it all applies to the men and women's lives. Love Au Zen is well suited for re-watching even if I understood the movie during the first viewing.

To define director Derek Chiu's style is not easy but what's obvious is his great feel for storytelling. He takes this quite complex story and makes it very clear for those who are patient enough to follow it to the end. It's delibaretly very slow paced which is needed to cover the entire content and meaning of this movie. Buddhism plays a huge part but Derek doesn't turn it into a 96 minute lecture but effectively makes it an integral part instead. It's not forced down our throat but it's there if we want to embrace the ideas ourselves. He sucks us into this environment without going overboard with the camera and we can also quietly sit back and absorb the commanding presence of Master Chi Yuan. It's all very accessible and despite the often heavy dialogue, Derek has his focus well on the story.

I picked up one stylistic that Derek seemed to love to do with this movie at least. In a handful of scenes throughout, there's always noticeable action both in the fore- and background, especially in the café-scenes with Flora and Annie. Very nicely captured and Love Au Zen has a lot more beautiful and clever touches that reminded me also what Wilson Yip does in his best moments. If there's one thing to complain about it's the beginning stages of the movie that feels rather dull and Derek doesn't seem to get himself or the actors going until the wedding scene. After that, it's a captivating experience all the way.

The genre Love Au Zen can belong to is romance but it also contains elements of low-key drama and a little comedy, the latter mostly courtesy of Annie Wu. Hong Kong comedy can take you out of a movie because it can sometimes not fit at all with the rest of the content of the movie. For once the loud comedy seem to fit since it's more than often is coming from the loudmouthed Mila. It's well placed and definitly not forced onto the production. The drama isn't played out in a sentimental way but is more in the line of the movies setting; very moody and calm. It is taking place inside the characters and in quiet moments in between them. Not many directors have that talent to convey a message without dialogue but Derek seems to have great faith in himself and his actors when directing these moments.

Cinematographer Tony Cheung's work also is a key to why this movie reaches the heights it does. We are seeing more of the buddhist setting than the urban Hong Kong and it's the former that gives Love Au Zen an edge over other similar movies. The green scenery and the temple environment are beautifully captured and first and foremost gives a very natural look to the film.

The cover art of the dvd only has four people but it really centers around five. Nevertheless, this small ensemble is very well choosen for their respective roles. Andrew Lin and Annie Wu won't rival any of the great character actors in Hong Kong but does bring much life to their performances. It was especially nice to see Andrew in a nice guy role. The more layered characters are played by Flora Chan and Poon Chan Leung. We don't get much backstory to this couple (only that they've been together for 5 years) but what we know is enough to carry us forward. It's two very restrained performances and that's a difficult balance to maintain without a director supporting you properly. The spiritual and the movies leader is Ko Ho Man who nicely embodies the relatively young but wise Master Chi Yuan. Much is depending on his delivery of the more crucial dialogue and if he had failed, so had the movie.

Derek Chiu's Love Au Zen is not for the average movie goer (which could explain it's low box office earnings) but for those seeking hope and depth in Hong Kong cinema, it's worth more than just one look.

The DVD:

Universe's 1.85:1 transfer looks quite sharp and colourful with minimal damage to the print. Strangely a few scenes borderline on looking terrible, almost as if they were taken from another print.

The cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track doesn't spread out but don't need to. There's some front channel separation for the score but other than that it's centered. Dialogue is always clear and intelligible. A mandarin 5.1 track is also included.

The english subtitles do a very good job of translating the very heavy amount of dialogue and I didn't notice any obvious errors. Very good, Universe! Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

A Making Of (9 minutes and 54 seconds) starts off the disc.. Watched it once for some behind the scenes footage but nothing else is on offer for us non-cantonese speakers. The usual Star's Files appear here and offer short info on Andrew Lin, Annie Wu and producer Clifton Ko. The trailer for Love Au Zen finishes the little extras there are.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson