US AND THEM: A Simple, Touching & Beautiful Movie
Us and Them is an extraordinarily impressive directorial debut from Rene Liu that will leave you contemplating the best and worst of romance.
There are solid reasons why romance is used in a huge proportion of film narratives. It is almost universally relatable, it’s cost-effective in only requiring the actors and not necessarily any large setpieces, and it can be deeply emotionally impactful and memorable. However, this is only the case if it is written, directed, and acted successfully, which seems depressingly uncommon.
Us And Them is not a particularly original film. It is about young love, reality crashing into ideals, and the importance of family. But after watching it, I felt a renewed interest in romance movies – not romcoms or films of other genres with romantic subplots, but ones that centre entirely around the subject. Because director Rene Liu’s creation is so beautifully simple and well constructed that it feels like a rare jewel.
Crafting A Love Story
Xiaoxiao and Jianqing are heading to their hometown from Beijing for New Years when they meet by chance on a train. Fast forward by ten years and they have run into each other once again when a plane they both boarded is delayed, only this time the tone is a little more sombre. We are shown how their relationship developed a decade earlier juxtaposed with conversations from the present, unlocking details of the characters’ ambitions, circumstances and passions along the way, as well as the depth of their love for each other.
The Chinese title for the film is Hòulái de Wǒmén, which literally translates to ‘Who We Will Be’, tackling the themes of time and progression, and acknowledging how the main characters evolve over the ten year period. Although this is a good representation of what the film has to offer, I kept finding myself meditating on the English title at various points in the runtime.
As Us And Them as a title would suggest, Liu’s film establishes the recurring barrier of class to Xiaoxiao and Jianqing’s relationship. There is also the restriction of gender placed on the former, who must overcome her class via marriage rather than through a career of her own merit. However, it is the more intimate meaning that I found most impactful.
In a beautiful scene where the two characters finally consummate their love, the camera pans out above them to show the other tiny compartments of the huge urban apartment block. The couple is oblivious to everyone else, choosing to exist in their own private world.
Undoubtedly the standout performance of Us And Them comes from Dongyu Zhou as Xiaoxiao, who infuses the character with a down to earth warmth, her quirks depicted effortlessly and endearingly through a playful and physical interpretation. The idealistic Jianqing is played with a charming grouchiness by Jing Boran, unrestrained in expressing the characters tempestuous emotions.
Whilst the individual performances are good, what keeps the film together is the incredible chemistry between the two actors. They fall into each other with an incredible ease, subtle physical gestures by both of them implying a deeply held affection for the other. Even in the more awkward moments of the script (likely an issue of translation), the raw, unhesitant performances from Zhou and Boran ensure the emotional core is intact.
Aesthetics and Resemblance
Subverting convention, Liu chose to shoot the flashbacks in colour and the current day scenes in black and white, changing the association colour palettes have with the passage of time to instead be a thematic link; in spite of all other circumstances, without one another, the world loses a certain dimension. The messy, cosy interiors of the abodes in the film also contrast nicely with the cold, geometric Beijing, serving to highlight the turbulent inner lives of the characters and provide a welcome sense of warmth.
In structure, though not in quality, the film this most reminds me of is Lone Scherfig’s One Day, in which we as the audience get to check in on the characters once a year on the same day to see how their relationship has progressed. The difference is that Us And Them does not rely rigidly on this gimmick to seem more interesting; Liu is happy to skip back between past and future, not giving a sense of consistency in the passing of time, and instead allowing the events to unfold organically.
There are also numerous similarities between this film and Michel Gondry’s classic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. They each utilise a cold, wintry aesthetic that highlights the loneliness of the protagonists when not together, and yet adds a delicate beauty to the more romantic and intimate scenes. The narratives both play with time, developing the relationships more thoroughly via the use of a somewhat nonlinear plot. Most importantly though, they both create characters so three dimensional and likeable that you perfectly understand why they loved each other to begin with.
Conclusion: Us And Them
Us And Them is an extraordinarily impressive directorial debut for Liu that has made me excited for more to come. Whilst not a thrilling ride, the pace perhaps a little sluggish for some, this delicate work will transport you into the lives of the young lovers as if they are living, breathing individuals, and leave you contemplating the best and worst of romance. If you have a Netflix account, clear an evening and watch this breathtaking movie.
Have you checked out Us And Them on Netflix? How do you think it stacks up next to other romances? Let me know in the comments!
Us And Them was released on Netflix worldwide on June 22, 2018.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.