Navigating life as a young adult can be less painful with a decadelong sidekick — even if you’re growing in different directions. The film “Soul Mate” is a romantic drama that follows two women in a roller-coaster, opposites-attract friendship, focusing in on all of the heartfelt tragedies, good times and misbehaviors that one’s uncertain 20s have to offer.
When lead characters Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu) and Qiyue (Sandra Ma) first meet at age 13, they’re predestined to be the best of companions, with Ansheng’s freewheeling nature balancing out Qiyue’s reservedness. The movie frames this bond well from the start, highlighting the precious moments of a young friendship with a beautiful score and delicate visual composition.
As “Soul Mate” progresses, the truthfulness and not-so-picture-perfect elements that come with maturing play out in both realistic and cinematic ways. Although dramaticized at times, especially in the interactions between Ansheng and Jiaming (Toby Lee), Qiyue’s boyfriend, the film realizes a kind of theatricality that happens in life’s tensest moments — and could hit a little too close to home for some.
This Chinese drama, directed by Derek Tsang, was released back in 2016 but is now available on DVD in the United States as of this summer. It has garnered countless awards across Chinese festivals since then, including a groundbreaking joint best actress win for both Zhou and Ma at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards, and the praises of each individual involved in creating this film are much deserved.
While the movie is chiefly concerned with the relationship cultivated between Ansheng and Qiyue, it also brings attention to evolving gender roles in Chinese society. Throughout the film, Qiyue’s mother adds her two cents about what girls face while growing up, at one point saying, “No matter what path a girl chooses, she will suffer.” The struggles these women face are usually centered around familial upbringing and societal constructs, and they effectively comment on the hardships of being a young woman.
In one particularly endearing scene, Ansheng and Qiyue struggle with the literal confines of womanhood in the form of a training bra. Qiyue’s mother languidly says, “Get used to it — girls need to get used to many unpleasant things in the future,” but this sentiment contrasts with Ansheng’s progressive “ditch the bra, experience what they call freedom” attitude toward the end of their junior high years.
Ansheng is the most interesting character in the story, and her expressive nature is both alluring and intimidating to her opposite Qiyue. Being the quirky girl who drives a motor scooter, bartends at concerts and tells people not to ask her “such existential questions,” Ansheng lives fearlessly — but also without much direction. The film ultimately draws viewers into the pros and cons of each extreme: living on the edge versus living comfortably.
It’s revealed from the start that Ansheng doesn’t have a present family in quite the same way that Qiyue does, but it’s unfortunately obvious that Qiyue’s parents favor the spunky, sociable Ansheng over their own mousy daughter. This dynamic is one of the main conflicts of the film, and it brings to light how close influences can affect one’s self-confidence and interpersonal relationships.
“Soul Mate” also succeeds in portraying the behind-the-scenes dynamics of female friendships with especially relatable moments, particularly when Qiyue and Ansheng talk about Jiaming’s boyfriend qualifications. With charming lines like Ansheng’s “Men are annoying unless you’re deeply in love,” the romantic threads throughout the film don’t settle into cheesy love story territories.
The overriding love, in the end, is between two best friends trying their best to learn together — even if life doesn’t always pan out the way they hope it will. “Soul Mate” uses the honest connection between Ansheng and Qiyue to reflect on what it truly looks like to be someone’s other half while they find what completes them.