The Chinese censors board can sometimes be unpredictable, but the one thing that remains absolutely certain is that crime cannot pay in a contemporary mainland movie. That’s why so many recent films from China end with an incongruous piece of on screen text telling us how long everyone is going to jail for after being convicted of the crimes we just saw them commit, often with a supplementary paragraph expressing their remorse and hope to make it up to the people and the party. All of this merely makes the existence of unconventional, dark rom-com My Dear Liar (受益人, Shòuyìrén) even more improbable than it already seemed seeing as the entire conceit is the murder of an innocent woman for financial gain.
Shen opens with childhood friends Zhong (Zhang Zixian) and Hai (Da Peng) rehearsing the story they will give to the police assuming their plan comes off. Zhong, an accountant, has been part of a large scale embezzlement scam which is currently under investigation. He needs to find a large amount of money quickly to cover up his crimes, getting together with Hai, a widowed single-father to a little boy with severe asthma, to commit small acts of minor extortion. When their random schemes stop paying the bills, Zhong makes a radical suggestion – insurance fraud. He proposes that Hai marry an internet web streaming star named “Foxy Fairy” (Liu Yan) so that he can start an affair and then drive over a bridge with her on the back of his motorcycle to collect the life insurance pay out. This whole plan hinges on the fact that Zhong knows Foxy Fairy can’t swim because she mentioned it on one of her live streams.
As plans go, it could use some work. Neither Zhong nor Hai seem to be particularly worried about the fact that they’re plotting to deceive and then murder a young woman solely for financial gain. Hai, who otherwise seems sweet and naive, is expected to live with and pretend to love a woman he is going to kill for money. One gets the impression he’s been doing Zhong’s bidding since they were kids without really thinking about it, but you’d expect him to at least ask a few more questions about being involved in an elaborate conspiracy to murder aside from clarifying that he won’t be expected to off her himself (except that he might, because Zhong’s plan isn’t as “watertight” as he first thought it to be).
Hai’s motivation for going along with all this, besides wanting to help the sociopathic Zhong, is his son’s health. Perhaps surprisingly, the film makes an implicit criticism of the declining air quality in the modern Chinese city, almost as a sort of metaphor for a moral decline coupled with a critique of increasing social inequality in suggesting that this is a problem which disproportionately affects the poor not least because they cannot afford to buy expensive machinery to improve it. Hai’s wife apparently died of a lung complaint, and his son Yoyo is in constant discomfort because living above the smoky internet cafe where Hai works irritates his asthma. In the park one day, Hai runs into a sales point for a new development, Diamond Bay, built out on the coast where they promise access to clean air. It sounds like a dodgy timeshare pyramid scheme, but it’s the only source of hope in Hai’s wretched life and so he sets his heart on getting enough money together for a luxury condo on the beach where Yoyo could breathe freely.
To get it, he sends his son away and makes an unconvincing attempt to play the part of “Big Ben” – one of China’s new brand of sleazy millionaires and a character apparently played by Zhong online for some time in order to romance the money hungry Foxy Fairy through her live stream channel. Why exactly Zhong picked her isn’t clear, save that he hopes to exploit her greed, justifying the scam with the rationale that she is also a “fraud” extorting money from her deluded fans under false pretences. Lacking the resources and an ill fit for the “Big Ben” mould, Hai struggles to win “Miaomiao’s”, to go by her “real” name, heart, but eventually begins to fall for her after seeing the woman underneath the makeup.
Once married, Miaomiao quickly slides into the conventional roles of wife and mother, even bonding with little Yoyo who makes an unscheduled reappearance mid-scam. Despite her rabidly consumerist online persona, it turns out that what Miaomiao wanted wasn’t riches but the warmth of a family home which is something she’s unexpectedly found living in the cramped apartment above the internet cafe. She remains completely clueless as to Hai’s true motives and desperately tries to make the marriage work, even going on TV to talk about what a good man her husband is.
One begins to wonder if Miaomiao is going to turn the tables on the scheming guys, but her big secret is just that she’s actually “nice” and wants to settle down for a conventional home life she assumed might have already passed her by. Hai hypocritically tells his son who keeps forging his signature on subpar report cards that the most important thing about being a man is “honesty”, but continues lying to Miaomiao right until the very end, getting cold feet only moments before it’s too late. Addressing some fairly subversive themes from the clean air issue to social inequality, institutionalised property fraud, corporate corruption, and organised embezzlement, My Dear Liar nevertheless refuses to engage with the deeply troubling nature of its central conceit even when indulging in the incongruous sweetness of its otherwise “wholesome” romance.
Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of CMC Pictures.
International trailer (English subtitles)