A big popular box office hit in China, this film has been trounced by the relatively few commentators who have reviewed it from outside the country. I found watching it to be a very strange experience – but also quite illuminating in terms of Chinese cinema.
Du LaLa is a young woman in modern-day Beijing who takes a job in what appears to be the secretarial pool of a Western corporation – do such things still exist? She is a hardworking and intelligent young woman, though lacking in formal qualifications and social knowledge about how this kind of organisation works. Gradually she works her way up the pyramid. On her first day she has a potentially embarrassing meeting with the young sales director and later she gets to know him, eventually forming a strong relationship even though such relationships are not allowed in the company and if discovered one of the couple is required to leave. The Western reviewers see the film as completely predictable, but I won’t ‘spoil’ the narrative by letting you know what happens.
The film seems in one sense very old-fashioned. It’s a classic Hollywood narrative, one of the earliest examples of which being Baby Face (1933) in which Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way up a corporate tower as a means of bettering herself. But there is nothing like that in the Chinese film. There is none of the sharpness of Working Girl (US 1988) either, although there are strong plot similarities. Instead, the feel I got was for those 1950s/60s romance/comedy/dramas with young women marooned in typing pools and only occasionally allowed any individuality and a stab at a relationship with their bosses. But there seems little chance of a Shirley Maclaine type figure appearing in the Chinese film.
This is perhaps surprising since the film is co-written and directed by its star Xu Jing-lei, one of the major female figures of her generation in Chinese Cinema. I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything else, but I do remember the film she directed in 2004 – a remake of Max Ophuls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman which made a festival tour but didn’t reach the UK as far as I know. Wikipedia tells me that Xu’s blog in China has the distinction of being the most ‘linked to’ in any language. She certainly has some star power as Du LaLa but unfortunately that isn’t enough to transform the film.
The oddness of the film derives from a seeming wish to create a new kind of ‘socialist realism’, albeit in a post-communist society. Just as in the 1950s when Chinese films sought to promote the idealised worker struggling to defeat class enemies, here LaLa is a modern Chinese business worker, diligently pursuing her career. At each point of the narrative when she is promoted in the company, an on-screen title tells us her new job title, her age and how much she earns. But this is the only realist data. Otherwise we learn very little about her home life and we see just as little of the bustle of city streets, only the occasional glimpse of a bus ride. The streets are generally empty apart from a few upmarket cars. Modern skyscrapers of steel and glass fill the urban landscape. Everyone who works in the office building is slim and attractive and wears colourful outfits. The excessive product placement is annoying. Everyone drinks Lipton’s Tea. Lipton’s is the biggest international tea brand, but it isn’t sold in the UK – consequently it always reminds me of countries where they serve you tea with warm water containing a tea bag (i.e. not the way we like it). And this is the country that invented tea drinking? This kind of international brand placement tells you a lot about the film’s pitch. The product placement reminds me of Aftershock but Feng Xaiogang’s films are almost neo-realist compared to this.
The senior staff in the company all speak English and there is the suggestion that several have trained abroad. On occasions the film reminded me of Hindi cinema with characters switching between English and Mandarin in social conversation. The most comfortable of these is the character played by Hong Kong star Karen Mok but Taiwanese actor Stanley Huang (Xu Jinglei’s real world partner) also manages this. The romantic moments in the film include a dance amongst public fountains in a deserted square and incidents during the firm’s holiday visit to Thailand – and indeed Thailand becomes the focus for the central relationship.
The Chinese title of the film is Du Lala’s Promotion and the property was originally a novel by Li Ke which was a bestseller in 2007 and has since appeared as both a TV programme and stage show. (It has been described as a ‘must-read’ for young people entering business in China.) Xu Jinglei and Stanley Huang revisited the narrative ideas in Dearest Enemy, a film about competing investment bankers that opened Christmas 2011. A report from China.org.cn reveals that the new film was partly shot in London and gives its budget as $7.89 million, the biggest of Xu’s career.
Most of my queries about the film were answered when I visited the website of the production company behind the film. DMG Entertainment turn out to be one of China’s leading advertising and marketing companies and a major player in film production DMG (Dynamic Marketing Group) made the 2009 blockbuster, The Founding of a Republic, commemorating 60 years of the PRC. I also noticed today that DMG are co-producing Iron Man 3 with Disney. For Go, Lala, Go!, DMG brought in a top Hollywood fashion designer Patricia Field – the woman behind the costumes in Sex and the City. It seems to have worked in China since the film’s box office was over $20 million making it a big hit for a Chinese film behind the US blockbusters. DMG import US films and list several major titles – this despite claims that foreign films must be imported by the state-run China Film Group. Chinese film industry announcements need careful investigation but one possibility is that China Film Group and DMG are joint importers. DMG also run cinemas in China, I think. They also have the nerve to state that their deliberate product placement is ‘sensitively done and unobtrusive’ – pull the other one!
If Go Lala Go! represents the new Chinese popular film, I think that I prefer Feng Xiaogang’s work.