“I will prove my love and determination to you”
Here’s an interesting film that’s beautiful to look at and well acted, but built on a story steeped in a notion the twenty first century doesn’t and shouldn’t accept. It could be a lost in translation situation wherein gender roles and patriarchal ideals remain stuck in an archaic past within China, but I have a fundamental issue with how Bai Xuedan‘s script The Story of 90 Coins presents its central conflict. Liwei Jian shoots it with skill, Michael Wong directs with palpable electricity, and the cast mines their characters for authentic emotions to pull at heartstrings and force their audience to hope Wang Yuyang (Dongjun Han) and Chen Wen (Zhuang Zhiqi) do end up together. But not because of a promise—not out of duty.
The romance at its core is sweet. Yuyang is sentimental and full of feeling, Wen practical and ambitious. He lets himself blurt that the two of them should move in together and she isn’t afraid to explain how such a decision warrants more time to think. He gives her ninety days—not as an ultimatum, but a cute mechanism to woo her. Each night brings his affection via a date, phone call, or song request. Each day supplies a coin in an envelope to commemorate the occasion. At the conclusion of their adventure she’ll have received nine dollars, the exact amount for a marriage certificate. Either she rebukes him and they go their separate ways after a drink or she says, “Yes” and they head to city hall.
In a stroke of necessary realism, a third option also presents itself: they will remain together but wait on marriage until the time is right and they are financially secure. The nine dollars will be stored and saved, always present as a reminder of their love. It’s supplies a great evolution with the two proving more complex as the days go by. Where it starts to derail, though, is with jealousy. Wen has an enormous opportunity to travel to Paris and go to school. The man helping her on that path is Andre (Jose Acosta), someone Yuyang sees as a threat. Suddenly a rift opens up and the notion of trust is tested. But there’s also a question of support that must be addressed. It’s not.
Yuyang can be jealous and angry in his refusal to talk through the issue, but he cannot be allowed to now set an ultimatum pitting him against her dreams. Where the film initially takes Wen afterwards is perfect. She has too much self-worth to buckle under the pressure of his temper tantrum and decides to do what is right for her. If that choice isn’t right with him, that’s not her problem. Paris is a glorious opportunity and Yuyang should acknowledge it. We never see his job or his ambitions besides marriage. What’s keeping him from moving with her? Nothing I can see besides some misguided concept of control. Sadly the film doesn’t quite stick with it. Rather than empower her, it sends her on a guilt trip.
I’m conflicted because this leads into a climactic montage that’s gorgeous to behold. She reads the messages he wrote in those envelopes and the memories of their love come flooding back. But it’s not nostalgia that hits her—it’s regret. This is what I cannot accept. She begins to think she made the wrong decision. That being with him—even if it meant shutting the door on her career—was the only correct path because she “promised” they’d always be together. She isn’t the one preventing that from happening, though. He is. The film intentionally puts the onus on her and she’s made to suffer as a result. No. He broke the promise. He needs to suffer. I guess that might say more about me than the film.