How a film genre is giving a particular spin to reality.
Romance may or may not be dead, but the romantic comedy has been faking its orgasm for quite a while.
Its 1990s heyday, when the likes of Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan built careers in the genre, is long gone.
The champagne spritzer of romcom hits – When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Clueless, Four Weddings and a Funeral, to name a few – has run dry. It retreated into formula, and the critics have rolled over disinterestedly in bed. There’s still the odd one-night stand, such as Will Smith’s Hitch (2005, $368.1m worldwide) or the first Sex and the City film (2008, $415m).
But the heart went out of the genre just as the internet began radicalising the amorous sphere of human relations, like every other. Last year’s 50 Shades of Grey, which served the same audience, had romance (of sorts), but any comedy was largely unintentional.
Try telling the Chinese the genre is supposed to have expired. This Friday is Singles Day in the country, a kind of inverted Valentine’s Day for the unattached, and prime romcom time: De-Single Bible is this year’s main offering, with two other romance-themed movies on release, too.
A romcom dumper-truck has been emptied out on to the country in recent years, with at least 100 such films in the past decade. At the head of the list is Stephen Chow’s superb The Mermaid, which became China’s most successful film ever in February ($525m).
This is the only romcom you’ll ever watch in which a merman chops off and fries his own tentacles. None of its peers display the same sick wit or originality, but Chinese romcoms have been reliable box-office performers and vehicles for the new generation of stars such as Fan Bingbing, Baihe Bai and Tang Wei.
Are the Chinese just insatiable romantics? Possibly. What is certain is that the romcom boom has coincided almost exactly with the country’s wider box-office boom since the late Noughties. That stupendous expansion has been driven by the young, with the overwhelming majority of the audience under 30 – so the romcom’s sudden flowering isn’t surprising.
Instead of the stodgy, government-sponsored historical spectaculars that dominated Chinese commercial cinema since the late 1990s, the country’s youth is opting for more trim-waisted reflections of their own love lives.
You could see it as a newly confident country celebrating its own pulling power – just as America did back in the 1930s. The blueprint for the romantic comedy was laid down in the US in the aftermath of the Great Depression, as Hollywood entered its Golden Age.
Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, in 1934, is often deemed the first. With Claudette Colbert’s mollycoddled heiress falling for Clark Gable’s cocky newspaper hack, it featured the ostensibly mismatched lovers we’ve seen so many times since, as well as the narrowly-averted-wedding climax familiar from the likes of Four Weddings.
The new style of comedy fed off social changes in an urbanising America, with the majority living in cities for the first time after the 1920s.
The thrilling sense of sexual availability and possibilities on sidewalks, in bureaus and bars brought different walks of life together, putting the entire class system in a cocktail shaker. These metropolitan rhythms propelled the urbane sparring of screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday and Philadelphia Story, a tone still lingering in romcoms at the end of the century.
Fascinatingly, China passed the same 50 percent urban threshold in 2010 – just as its romcom boom really got going. The multiplexes being constructed at a dizzying rate in the country’s fast-growing inland cities needed fresh new products other than blockbusters.
What better than the romcom, usually preoccupied with the trials and tribulations of the country’s urban elite? 2011’s If You Are the One, directed by Feng Xiaogang (often dubbed the “Chinese Spielberg”), sees a millionaire bachelor investor trawl fruitlessly through the internet dating scene. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, from the brilliant Hong Kong director Johnnie To in the same year, sees a stocks analyst flip-flop between a hunky-but-unfaithful hedge-fund manager and a nice-guy architect. One Night Surprise from 2013 is about a creative ad exec who has to track down the father of her baby.
Others simply revel in nouveau riche materialism: with the first film culminating in four childhood friends pulling off a Shanghai fashion show, the highly successful Tiny Times series is a Sex and the City-influenced ode to personal empowerment and deluxe living. But then that’s nothing new.
Seduction regularly went hand-in-hand with the hard sell during the Hollywood Golden Age, too, when fashionably decked-out stars on tryst duty helped shift brand items – and flog the consumerist American Dream. (Ironically, sales of men’s vests dropped dramatically after Gable’s topless undressing scene in It Happened One Night.)
Certain filmmakers blatantly reference how much the Chinese romcom follows the American model. The heroine of 2013’s Finding Mr Right claims she is travelling to Washington State in homage to her favourite film, the 1993 classic Sleepless in Seattle.
Actually, she is there to give birth in an illegal maternity centre – because as she is trophy lover to a rich, married Chinese investor her child wouldn’t be legally recognised back home. A similar cast-off beauty, played by Shu Qi, is the love interest in If You Are the One.
Maybe this kind of harshness, acknowledging the victims in a ruthless race for sexual and emotional territory, is where the Chinese romcom differs from the American version. Julia Roberts was, of course, a call girl in Pretty Woman, but that’s a jumping-off point for a sentimental Pygmalion makeover. You certainly don’t see her falling pregnant, or attempting suicide, as in If You Are the One.
There appears to be a certain cold-blooded pragmatism in the Chinese romcom that feels distinctly non-Western. If You Are the One makes sparkling comedy pointing out love’s economic scaffolding in one scene when its protagonist is told by a stockbroker he dates that, now he’s in his 40s, he’s “fallen below the offer price”. His ridiculous “Conflict Resolution Terminal” – a plastic tube that prevents people from cheating at rock-paper-scissors – is how he has made his fortune.
The implication is that people rarely play their hand fairly in other arenas, including romance, too; something he says he wants to remedy. But with delicious cynicism, he admits in the end that his invention is totally useless.
Which isn’t to say the Chinese romcom isn’t capable of being as sentimental as the traditional American slushfest. In a completely different way, though.
Tiny Times’ Shanghai rich kids don’t have much to complain about, but near its finale one character comes over all elegiac about their office/love life First-World problems: “One does not know when life’s direction will change/ Sunk into a darkness like ink/ Dragged into a deep abyss by disappointment/ Trapped into a grave by illness.”
If You Are the One – first parodying, then turning into one of Wong Kar-wai’s unrequited-love sagas – shares this underlying melancholy.
There is a sense that life choices are ultimately ephemeral, at the mercy of chance, and apt to be swept away by social and political forces, or by time itself. This awareness of temps perdu also hangs heavily over the broader wave of romantic dramas, like Vicky Zhao’s 2014 hit So Young, that has accompanied the romcom boom.
Maybe this historical reverb surrounding personal lives should come as no surprise from a country that, for example, dictated its citizens’ child-rearing for a third of a century. But it’s the opposite of the individualistic American happily-ever-after in the US romcom. You never caught Meg Ryan worrying about much more than orgasms.
Phil Hoad was formerly The Guardian’s global box office analyst and Dazed & Confused’s film editor. He has written on cinema for The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Times, The Face and The Big Issue.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.