If contemporary Chinese cinema has one message, it’s come home to China. Feng Xiaogang, however, has never been keen to go with the flow for all of his occasionally problematic affection for the nation as it was before the ‘80s reforms. A co-production with New Zealand, unabashed romantic tearjerker Only Cloud Knows (只有芸知道, Zhǐ Yǒu Yún Zhīdào) seems primed to speak directly to the diaspora audience, asking if perhaps the meaning of the word “home” has changed, less place than people and, therefore, infinitely portable.
In the present day, recently widowed Dongfeng/Simon (Huang Xuan) prepares to say goodbye to his late wife, Yun/Jennifer (Yang Caiyu), by travelling back through their long years together facing many ups and downs as they strove to make a life for themselves in the laidback greenery of the New Zealand countryside. Dongfeng travels first to the small town where they started a humble restaurant, cooking the kind of food Westerners expect rather than the authentic Chinese dishes they fear no one will try, and using their English names “for convenience”. While there they employ a friendly waitress, Melinda (Lydia Peckham), who is something of a free spirit saving up money to travel to distant lands, touring Asia and Africa.
Though they are blissfully happy, life is not without its difficulties. Working so hard to make the restaurant a success leaves them with time for little else and wondering if they’ve perhaps lost sight of something important. Dongfeng no longer plays his flute, and Yun worries that he’s sacrificed a part of himself to provide for her, becoming a slightly different person in the process. Obsessed with blue whales, Yun craves protection and security, the kind of things many associate with a building a stable home, but she also yearns for freedom and for something more than ordinary happiness. Minor resentment creeps in born of that central contradiction. Dongfeng wants to give Yun the kind of security he assumes she needs by betting everything on the restaurant, but all she really wants is him.
Nevertheless, protection and security were the things which attracted her to Dongfeng in the first place as symbolised by her obsession with blue whales. Somewhat improbably, his hotheaded decision to start a fight with a man who cut them up in a carpark and then insulted Yun only endears him to her further and also gets him a commendation from a local policeman who even tells him he might be cut out for life on the force, but to ease back on the violence because New Zealand is a peaceful place. There are things, however, that one cannot be protected from and as much as fate gives it also takes away. Yun craves protection because she feels insecure in an existential sense, convinced that she is “unlucky” and originally reluctant to agree to Dongfeng’s proposal in fear that she is destined to make him unhappy.
Sadly, that prediction eventually proves correct though through no fault of her own. Lucky in love, the couple face their share of hardships from an inability to start a family to losing beloved pets and dealing with illness, but there’s no joy without sadness and if your time together is shorter perhaps it is equally sweet. In his opening monologue, Dongfeng muses, quoting poetry, that time moved slower in the past and there was only enough of it to love one person before telling us that his life has been about one woman. Only Cloud Knows is the story of how he learned to say goodbye, but also of a 20-year love that endures to transcend time.
Apparently inspired by the true life love story of one Feng’s friends and collaborators, Only Cloud Knows has a rare kind of authenticity in its deeply felt romance which somehow seems all the more real for its clichéd genesis. Foreshadowings of partings echo throughout, reminding us that all love ends one way or another and it’s the ones left behind who mind it most, but rather than dwell on the maudlin, Feng shows that life goes on even in the midst of heartbreak. Houses change hands, old owners with teary eyes making space for bright-eyed youngsters full of hope for the future, while those who are leaving bequeath their unlived years to those they love with hopeful generosity. What Dongfeng discovers is that home is where the heart is, even if the heart is forever in the past.
Currently on limited release in US/UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.
Original trailer (English subtitles)