The Floating Landscape (2003)

Directed by: Carol Lai
Written by: Carol Lai & Lai Ho
Producers: Stanley Kwan & Arthur Wong
Starring: Karena Lam, Liu Ye, Su Jin, Huang Jue & Ekin Cheng

Buy the DVD at:

Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2004:
Best Cinematography (Arthur Wong)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2004:
Professional Recommendations Awards: New Director Award (Carol Lai)
Best Actress (Karena Lam)
Best Art Direction (Lok Man-Wah)
Best Costume Design and Make-up (William Cheung)

After Maan's (Karena Lam) boyfriend, artist Sam (Ekin Cheng) passes away, she travels to Qiangdao where he grew up, to search out a landscape he's described and put down on paper. It's an unexplainable feeling as to why she has to find what's in the sketch but aiding her around Qiangdao is postman Lit (Liu Ye), an aspiring artist himself. The two strike a bond but are feelings developing just because Maan sees a lot of Sam in Lit and will the finding of the landscape bring closure to the sad past?

Talking initially about one of the producers of Carol Lai's second feature, The Floating Landscape, Arthur Wong. He, if credits on the Internet are correct, have only recently ventured into that capacity and in doing so, have supported the careers of two upcoming female directors. In the case of this film, Carol Lai (whose previous film was the drama Glass Tears, starring Lo Lieh) and Barbara Wong (Truth Or Dare: 6th Floor Rear Flat). Arthur however, on these projects, has remained true to his more widely known profession, cinematographer and that choice panned out nicely on The Floating Landscape as Wong received the award for Best Cinematography at the 2004 Hong Kong Film Awards. Obviously, cinematography plays a crucial part in making a film successful but we're now going to shift attention to film's director, Carol Lai.

It was Lost In Time and The Floating Landscape that managed to share themes but come out different in tone, because of settings, during the 2003 Hong Kong cinema output. Arguably the most successful of the two was Derek Yee's film but Carol Lai's entry is of high caliber. It does lack the full on weight to make it entirely worthwhile though. The mentioned main theme is of course the one about the wrongful clinging on to a past that ended with misery and what makes Maan's journey lesser in impact compared to that of Cecilia Cheung's in Lost In Time, is because the premise feels, not cliché, not well-meaning but rather unreal or, to steal from another review, manufactured. In the end, it's not so much about the place Maan seeks but the journey she takes and that in itself is realized well. The ultimate emotional weight the movie hinges on does not fully work either, the love story between Sam and Maan. Witnessed in flashbacks, there's a sense that they didn't know much about each other but lived off an undeniable sense of belonging. Maan even admits that she didn't know much about his childhood but what's really wrong here then?

I think that Carol Lai has not managed to bring the two actor's characters as close as they're supposed to be (the actor's age difference is a factor here I'm sorry to say). Even with the angelic look of the flashbacks and with Karena Lam's acting that obviously tells of a deep love, it didn't reach my heart in a greater sense and therefore loses impact. Now, I'm not after emotional hysterics to understand and feel a love story. Carol Lai has rightly opted for a very subdued tone and that also goes for the love story between Sam and Maan. There lies merits in both ways of portraying emotions though, when done rightly. These negatives doesn't take away a whole lot from The Floating Landscape, which is often a fairly enchanting look at one character holding on to memories but needing to take the journey of life forward again. Told in a slow but accessible manner, even the exposition trap of voice-over from Sam's diaries fit reasonably well in and could've been intrusive if it had been a character relating to events he or she just experienced in the film. The film leans towards arthouse, especially in the stylistic touches employed to bring back Ekin's character into the film, but most of the narrative is very straightforward, what needs to be shown is and it's not hard to interpret either. What needs to be felt through character comes through in the quiet nature of the film and Carol Lai as a director shows really great potential for this, what I consider, the most rewarding and worthwhile approach to drama. She even handles the bond and eventual romantic touches that occur between Maan and Lit very well, also thanks to good interaction between actors Karena Lam and Liu Ye. There's of course similarities in characters between Sam and Lit but she can only pursue him if she's willing to let go of memories. That romance plot point succeeds, even if the closing moments of the film, like Lost In Time, can't avoid some tired movie clichés regardless of how much visual beauty is on screen. One area of the narrative that never fully is explored is the subplot of Tung (Su Jin) and her ex-husband Wu (Huang Jue). It does nicely represent a contrast to Maan's situation but ultimately doesn't play much of a part in making the whole movie's themes work.

Being a co-production with China, the film allows itself to break loose from the Hong Kong scenery and not only does Carol Lai use the simplicity of Chinese cinema but she also has cinematographer Arthur Wong to capture that muted, drab look of rural China. He keeps it simple, not resorting to advanced camera tricks and nicely makes the heaven like flashbacks bounce off the present grey parts of the film. Only time colours really are introduced is during an animated segment towards the end but also thank artist Jimmy Liao and the animators for that. Personally I wouldn't say that Wong's work was the best that year (felt the cinematography of PTU deserved the award) but there's no doubt the quality he brings and it really is suitably non-intrusive which in itself is important for a story like this.

Actress Karena Lam also goes from clarity to clarity with a very much adult performance that she rises to the challenge of performing. There's that challenge, in a subdued atmosphere like the movie employs, of communicating volumes through as little as possible and working with director Lai, Lam just is there to take care of the beats needed, beautifully so. She still is a rising star but what a star that is and for movie fan's, her choice in roles really demands respect as well (except Heroic Duo, obviously). Liu Ye brings much presence and realism to the character of Lit. A very caring young man and there's nothing glamorous about him or Lam as actors. They both melt into the locations and feel real plus they do share a good sense of screen chemistry between them. Even Ekin Cheng's support as our dead artist is worthwhile and in my mind, his "best"' acting can come out in these kinds of films or when a director like Carol Lai is backing him up. Not bad, not truly great but it's one of his performances that ain't so easily dismissable.

Carol Lai's The Floating Landscape falls short of true greatness due to some not so fully realized emotional points but counterparting that is very solid execution overall in this drama about letting go off your past and daring to take that new road ahead. With another star performance by Karena Lam and a suitable tone for this mainland China set drama, the film is worthwhile for the positive points it does possess and further proof of the quality that's so underrated in today's Hong Kong Cinema.

The DVD:

Thankfully Universe opted to present the film in a anamorphically enchanced 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The design is consciously muted and the transfer replicates that very well with no apparent damage on the print to boot.

Only one language track is available and that is a Dolby Digital 2.0 one. Mandarin is the dominant language and dialogue sounds clear throughout while music spreads out very nicely, mainly in the front, when employed.

The English subtitles feature no problems asides from an error or two in structure. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. Again, Universe has placed the subtitles set up under the special features menu but there's also some actual special features there as well.

I wish Hong Kong dvd companies would be consistent in regards to English subtitled extras, which means that we on this disc again get a Chinese subbed only making of (15 minutes, 11 seconds). Except for the odd shot of Arthur Wong at work, there's not much for here to gather unless you know Cantonese or Mandarin.

The Music Video by Karena Lam is purely based on movie clips but the song is a nice Canto-pop ditty. Jimmy Art Gallery showcases 5 of Jimmy Liao's paintings that were incorporated into the film via the ending animation sequence. Photo Gallery (20 stills) is an unexciting gathering of your usual movie stills while the Star's Files for Karena Lam, Ekin Cheng and Liu Ye only provides filmographies.

Trailers for The Floating Landscape, The Death Curse, My Dream Girl and Together finishes the disc.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson