Friendship in all its guises

Soul Mate explores the bond between two unlikely buddies while Mascots reveals the self-delusion and backbiting surrounding a gang of misfits

An otherwise average portrait of a friendship is saved by clever editing, strong visuals and fine performances from its two women leads in Soul Mate(PG, 110 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars).

Two girls meet during military drills in primary school and form an instant bond. Qiyue (Ma Sichun) follows the rules; Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu) breaks them without a moment's hesitation. The nice girl comes from a loving two-parent family while the rebel is looked after by a busy single mum.

Director Derek Tsang, in adapting Annie Baby's Web novella, turns it into an extended music video about two buddies hanging out, two young women growing up in a nondescript Chinese city - striking, dialogue- light montages of them having fun together, then living apart, after having gone their own ways.

Tsang marries pop and Mandorock to his images, depending on the mood, achieving both a feel of time passing and fragility of friendships in a nation overhauling itself.

Qiyue and Ansheng are one-child-policy babies coming of age in the 2000s, when a generation found they could explore options other than marriage and a steady job. The women's lives reflect the possibilities in a new China: Ansheng is a vagabond while Qiyue goes to a good college and settles down to married life in the old hometown with childhood sweetheart Jia Ming (Toby Lee).

Actresses Zhou Dongyu (far left) and Ma Sichun play unlikely friends in Soul Mate.
Actresses Zhou Dongyu (far left) and Ma Sichun play unlikely friends in Soul Mate. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

It is here where the story, in search of juicy dramatic conflict, takes a turn for the conventional. Tsang and his screenwriters hide from the viewer facts about the women to build suspense. That manipulation of the storytelling, leading to a final major reveal in the last act, is something of a cheat, but it is forgivable because Tsang and the crew handle it with such style.

The women, too, give finely shaded performances that lean as much on the small moments of bonding as they do on the ones that see them crying and yelling. The Golden Horse nominations, for editing, directing and leading actress performances for Ma and Zhou, are well deserved.

It is a shame the work failed to get nominations in art direction. Every location - Qiyue's family flat, the Beijing slum dwellings Ansheng bunks in with her rock musician boyfriend - is dense with detail. You can almost smell the dingy pub where Ansheng bartends.

That attention paid to the set does not extend to the characters, however. The film's key weakness is in its psychological insight or lack of it. For a movie that so wants to lay bare an intense and turbulent friendship, it has precious little to say about why two women with so little in common have such an enduring bond.

Chris O'Dowd stars in Mascots, which depicts the world of competitive sports mascots.
Chris O'Dowd stars in Mascots, which depicts the world of competitive sports mascots. PHOTO: NETFLIX

There are few bonds as enduring as the ones that hold together the ensemble behind Mascots(M18, 155 minutes, now showing on Netflix, 3.5/5 stars). Once more, co-writer and director Christopher Guest reveals the self-delusion, narcissism and backbiting that happens when a group of hopefuls gather. He did the same for a dog show (Best In Show, 2000), amateur theatrics (Waiting For Guffman, 1996) and the rock music world in the movie that has since become a classic of satire, This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which he co-wrote.

The same loose improvisational feel has been brought to this Netflix exclusive. As in other Guest works, this is shot in mockumentary style, purporting to take the veil off the cut-throat world of sports mascot competitions.

Guest is supported by old friends (Parker Posey, Chris O'Dowd, Bob Balaban) but sadly not Harry Shearer, who appears only as an announcer's voice, or Michael McKean, who these days is busy working in critically acclaimed dramas such as Better Call Saul.

There are hilarious visuals aplenty in the form of adults who wear ridiculous foam outfits for a living; a lot of humour is mined from how unaware the performers are of how silly they look. The jokes do not always land, but Guest's affection for this gang of misfits elevates this above the simple exercise of shooting fish in a barrel.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2016, with the headline Friendship in all its guises. Subscribe