“Girls are mostly stupid” extols the dubious romantic lead of Tan Chui Mui’s debut feature, “they think their love can conquer all”. Ironically titled Love Conquers All (爱情征服一切, àiqíngzhēngfúyīqiè), Tan’s ‘90s drama wonders how true that might be or if in a sense love can at least triumph over reality as we watch the naive heroine falling wilfully or otherwise into a dangerous web of abuse and exploitation while torn between the innocent romance of a hometown boyfriend and the confusing compromises of seedy urbanity.
Innocent country girl Ping (Coral Ong Li Whei) travels from her home in Penang to work in a relative’s restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. While using a pay phone to keep in touch with her family, she comes to the attention of John (Stephen Chua), a somewhat rough local man who quickly begins stalking her bizarrely enough with the offer of a bunch of bananas to which Ping claims to be allergic. Nevertheless, lonely in her new life in the city rooming with her employer’s young daughter Mei, she eventually gives in and begins a relationship with him. While they’re at a hawker stand one evening, he introducers her to his friend, Gary, whom he claims is a pimp. Gary’s modus operandi is to pick up a new girl every three months, make her his girlfriend and then disappear sending a friend to say he’s in trouble with some shady types and needs money fast. Unable to pay, the young woman is drawn into sex work which Gary forces her to continue on his return before selling her off to people traffickers and starting the process over again.
Ping seems fairly horrified by John’s story, but inevitably experiences something similar herself as John expresses fear for his future given the precarity of his underworld life, turns up with bruises, and then disappears sending Gary to tell her he needs money fast. She knows what’s happening but goes along with it anyway, perhaps out of a sense of fatalism or as John has suggested because she gives in to the romantic fallacy that her love can save him though he only means to use and discard her. Or perhaps, who knows, it is just a coincidence and he really does love her after all. A minor moment of potential exploitation mirroring their earliest date in which she suggests buying him a jacket but he prefers a different, possibly more expensive one, may imply something different.
In any case, Ping’s view of romance may be overly idealised informed by the brand of TV drama so cheesy that little Mei and her mum can’t help giggling as they watch. Mei too is in the middle of an innocent romance with a penpal who calls himself only the “Mysterious Man” which is on one level worrying even if her explanation that he usually talks about stuff at school implies they may be of a similar age and she may even know him. At different stages, both Ping and Mei are seen drinking at the cafe staring into space thinking of their respective romantic interests though Ping’s situation is obviously not quite so innocent. On a fairly coercive date in which he idly raises the idea of marriage and children, John drags her to the beach and posits an ideal family life in small house like that of his aunt to whom he introduces her as his wife but may or may not actually mean to provide her.
“You have no choice unless you jump” John uncomfortably repeats as he completes his romantic conquest even as Ping continues to call her hometown boyfriend on the phone telling him she loves him even in front of a mildly jealous John. Perhaps their romance is to her a kind of fantasy of romantic sacrifice set in contrast with the more prosaic sacrifice she has made to leave her family and travel to the city. While working in the cafe she’s approached by another creepy guy only a little older than John but just as persistent and taking much the same approach insistently asking for her name though she eventually manages to brush him off. Yet the question remains, is Ping merely a romantic fool, “stupid” as John had said, or a young woman attempting to take control of her romantic destiny as perhaps Mei is doing when she asks her mother to drive her to her pen pal’s address so she can figure out what he looks like? Shot digitally in a retro 4:3, Tan’s debut feature is replete with zeitgeisty detail of Kuala Lumpur in the ‘90s and filled with the lacuna of nostalgia, but offers no real answers for the duplicitous nature of love.
Love Conquers All streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.
Original trailer (English subtitles)