Sunday, November 2, 2014

Love Contract

Title: Love Contract
Writer: Jiang Shu Hui

Director: Xu Zhao Ren
Country of Origin: Taiwan
Episodes: 20

The most unlikely relationships can sprout from two mismatched people. Xiao Feng (Ariel Lin) is the tomboyish captain of her college Kendo Club who keeps her friends in the club in line with her strong, demanding personality. When two of her friends defect to the Swim Team, they find that it also is lead by an equally demanding captain, Ah Ken (Mike He). But when the friends devise a prank to strong-arm Ken into courting the unsuspecting Feng, could they be getting themselves into hot water?

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This review is nothing but spoilers so click to the bottom for final thoughts if you don't want to be spoiled.

The description of this drama seems innocuous enough, but don't be deceived. While the series is quite silly at times, there are quite a few dark themes explored throughout. One of the darker themes in the series is the destructive nature of love, this series features some horrifying examples of codependency and dysfunctional relationships.

We have Ken's mother, Mei Li, who refuses to acknowledge that her ex-husband has abandoned their son and her. Her refusal to let him go and accept that he's not coming back leads to her untimely death. Feng's parents, Zheng Jie & Li Feng Hua, are in an unhappy marriage where all they do is fight, fights so bad that they're directly responsible for the physical scars Feng carries on her body. One of the best parts of the series is when Feng's mother demands a divorce from her cheating husband. (Insert feminist roar cry!) The silver lining to the divorce is that they are not only both finally happy, they actually find a friend in the other. For the first time in years they're actually encouraging each other rather than tearing each other down as they each pursue their own dreams.

Back to the melodrama, Kai accidentally pushes his girlfriend, Li Xin Lei, down the stairs breaking her arm and twisting her leg when she refuses to accept their breakup. Feng's sister, Xiao Yun, is having an affair with a married man, Simon, and miscarries their unborn child. Even after Simon's mistreatment of her she has a hard time letting him go. It actually takes his wife sharing with Xiao Yuna a scrapbook she's kept of all of his affairs to convince Xiao Yuna to leave him. (And don't even get me started on Simon's wife keeping a freakin' scrapbook of his infidelities!) I almost forgot Xiao Xiao's unhealthy obsession over Xiao Bai who does not reciprocate her feelings.

With these examples before her, it's no wonder Feng has a hard time accepting and believing in love. I pitied Ken for a good part of the series. Early on you can tell he's fallen in love and Feng does not make it easy on him. And when she finds out about the love contract, which Ken really had very little to do with anyway, you'd think he'd killed her favorite puppy. This one thing makes her doubt that he loves her, even though he has shown her his love in countless ways. Even her friends try and convince her, but to no avail. This irked me as I truly liked them as a couple and wanted them to have a happily ever after.

Her stubbornness and Xiao Bai's bad driving is what ultimately leads to their deaths. If she could have just been a little less stubborn none of it would have happened and I wouldn't have been traumatized by the ending (we'll come back to this later in the post). The timing of the wreck is unnecessarily cruel. The audience is expecting them to make the rendezvous point and see the giant video billboard where Ken declares his love to the world and instead we're left with a dying Xiao Bai. Now granted, the revelation of the love contract came at a bad time. Feng had just let down her guard to Ken and showed her the scars on her body leading to a mini breakdown. So I guess in her fragile state I can kind of understand her refusal to believe his love is genuine, but I still wanted to shake her.

Speaking of characters I want to shake, Mu Tou! So he's in love with Feng, but instead of confessing his feelings to her he tries to expose the love contract to make Ken look bad. He even goes so far as to slash a painting Ken had been working on as a tribute to his mother. Unfortunately, the timing was bad as Ken's mom dies the same night. He redeems himself by footing the bill of the repair job and becomes a Ken/Feng advocate. I liked Mu Tou when he wasn't obsessing over Feng. One of my favorite relationships in the series is between Xiao Xiao and Mu Tou. She starts out as utterly forgettable...simply an extension of Xiao Bai's shadow, but by the end of the series she is one of the strongest female characters and a close friend to Mu Tou. (I kind of ship them.)

One of the most genuine scenes in the series is when Xiao Bai confronts Xiao Xiao with his lack of feelings. Her reaction to the news by asking to hear the information again and again so that she could process it is quite beautiful in a dream crushing sort of way. I thought the actors did a good job portraying the emotions involved.

Now this isn't to say there weren't positive portrayals of love. Kai's willingness to support Ken in his pursuit of Feng, even as he is struggling with his own unrequited feelings for her, is a beautiful depiction of love. He saw how happy Ken made her and he put aside his own feelings to support them. Familial love was also portrayed in a positive light. The closeness between Ken and his mom Mei Li and Feng and her sister Xiao Yun are some of the best examples of love in the series.

The ending disturbed me for a multitude of reasons. There are three endings, ranging from heart crushing depressing to bizarre. The writers seem to be leaving it up to the viewers to decide what actually happened. The first ending, the one that will tear at your heart, has Ken carrying a comatose Feng into the ocean to commit double suicide. (You may be asking how this qualifies as double suicide and not murder suicide, which is a sensible question to ask. Feng's spirit lets the viewer know it's what she wants as well, hence the double suicide.) The second ending has Feng screaming "Wait" and then they both swim back to shore where they're playing on the beach and everything is happy and normal. Then "Wait...Again!" is screamed and the next ending sees them on the beach in their wedding clothes. All of their friends meet them on the beach, after they hear their voices in a plush whale toy, and it ends with a group shot being taken. The last ending is surreal with Xiao Bai joining in the wedding festivities. I mean he's supposed to be dead and if you go back to the first ending so are Ken and Feng.

The multiple endings left me so confused that I finally Googled "love contract ending explanation" to see other people's interpretations of the ending. The consensus seems to be that the endings represent reincarnation. There is one scene in the last episode where it appears that Ken and Feng are angels banished from heaven to learn the meaning of love. (I honestly thought Feng was just dreaming in her coma, so didn't pay much attention to this scene.) So the first ending would be them dying together so that they can be forever joined as wind and sand. (It's a metaphor Ken uses right before he kills himself.) Then they come back and you see that they have achieved happiness and are together. The last ending is them getting to come back down to earth and get married, something they weren't able to do while alive on earth, to achieve ultimate happiness. This might all be too deep for me.

Before we go, let's talk more about the last episode. The last episode might be the most depressing thing I've ever watched. It begins a year after the motorcycle accident with us finding out that Feng has been comatose since the accident and Xiao Bai is dead from the same accident. This episode literally has Ken taking Feng out for a last day together where they not only visit all the greatest hits, like the place where they first held hands and first kissed, but also has them making new memories together, like Ken cooking dinner for Feng and them dancing together. There are some flashbacks, which is expected, but then you have scenes where Ken is having conversation with an imaginary Feng, when he's not yelling at the comatose Feng to wake up. On top of this you actually have Feng's spirit looking on as all of this is happening whom Ken can't see or hear. It's so bizarre and so very depressing. I defy you not to cry while watching them have their first and last dance.

The day ends with Ken taking Feng to the beach. Where he reaffirms his affections for her stating that they can be together because they are both ugly and are the same. At this point we see that Ken has self-mutilated himself in the same spot where Feng's burn scars are. (The last episode really highlights Ken's downward spiral into madness.) He then picks her up and carries her bridegroom style into the ocean saying that they can finally be together as wind and sand. I'm not gonna lie I was crying...and yelling. I was so pissed. I did not sign up for something so heavy. Then came the confusion as we got hit with another ending and then another.

I will say the last episode stays with you. Several times since watching the ending I'll find my brain going back over the details and trying to make sense out of it all. I also can't think of the first ending without feeling a bit melancholy. It's the same feeling I get when I think of the ending to Beaches or Steel Magnolias. Oh! or Moulin Rouge.

Reading the above review you might think I hated it, but I honestly liked the series even with the bad relationship models. I liked the playfulness in many of the scenes and I even liked the darker tones that run throughout the series. Feng's struggle to come to terms with her scars and self loathing is moving and adds a layer of depth to the series. As did Ken's depression after losing his mother and his deteriorating sanity after Feng's accident.

Final Thoughts

Overall I liked this Taiwanese drama, even though I hated the ending...or endings as were. (The first ending is the best ending even if it is the most depressing thing you might ever watch.) I liked most of the characters and could relate to their struggles. I will be honest in saying that I would never have watched the series if I knew how it ended before hand. If you like happy endings, just stay clear of the series or stop watching at episode seventeen.

On a related note, this series has a fantastic soundtrack. The theme song especially stays with you. It's a sorrowful kind of beauty.

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