Review: ‘Almost Love’ (2022), starring Li Wenhan and Xu Ruohan

September 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Xu Ruohan and Li Wenhan in “Almost Love” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Almost Love” (2022)

Directed by Luo Luo 

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in China’s Shanghai area, from 2009 to 2017, the dramatic film “Almost Love” has an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A young man and woman have an on-again/off-again love affair, beginning when they were teenagers, and their romance is hindered by various outside influences.

Culture Audience: “Almost Love” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in romantic dramas that take place over several years and have good acting.

Li Wenhan and Xu Ruohan in “Almost Love” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Almost Love” has some moments that veer from bland to overly sappy, but this drama overall has realistic portrayals of an on-again/off-again romance. It’s an emotionally poignant story about a young couple whose love affair is affected by outside influences, such as career pressures and parental disapproval. “Almost Love” retreads a lot of familiar territory and tropes that are in several movies about young lovers who break up, make up, and aren’t sure if their relationship will last. If not for the engaging acting from the movie’s cast members, “Almost Love” would be a lot duller than it needed to be.

Directed by Luo Luo (who co-wrote the “Almost Love” screenplay with Zhai Pei), “Almost Love” takes place mostly in China’s Shanghai area, from 2009 to 2017. In 2009, Yu Jiaoyang (played by Xu Ruohan) is in her last year of high school, where she is a social outcast. Yu Jiaoyang has the unflattering nickname Ash-bin because she comes from a poor family.

Yu Jiaoyang has a crush on a classmate named Zhou Can (played by Li Wenhan), who is a handsome, affluent and talented aspiring artist. To her surprise, Zhou Can is attracted to Yu Jiaoyang too, and they begin dating each other. Zhou Can defends Yu Jiaoyang when she is bullied or teased at school. But when two people from very different social classes have a romance, you know what that means: At least one person in the couple’s inner circles will disapprove of the relationship.

In the case of Zhou Can, the disapproval mostly comes from his domineering mother (played by Qing Wei), who unfairly judges Yu Jiaoyang as a trashy gold digger without even taking the time to get to know Yu Jiaoyang. His mother, who insults Yu Jiaoyang to her face, also thinks that Yu Jiaoyang is a “bad influence” on Zhou Can, even though Yu Jiaoyang is actually a polite and friendly person who doesn’t get into trouble. Zhou Can’s mother constantly berates him for dating Yu Jiaoyang, until he reaches a point where he tries to hide his dating activities from his mother.

Yu Jiaoyang has her own family issues: Her parents are dead. Yu Jiaoyang’s grandmother, who’s been her guardian, is ailing. Yu Jiaoyang tries to put forth a cheerful image to the world. However, her grandmother’s health problems have caused Yu Jiaoyang a lot of stress that she tries to hide from people. Zhou Can becomes Yu Jiaoyang’s closest confidant, and she opens up to him about a lot of things in her life, including her fear about losing her grandmother.

One of the other personal issues that Yu Jiaoyang tells Zhou Can about is the true story of what really happened in a notorious incident that Yu Jiaoyang was involved in at her previous high school. In this incident, Yu Jiaoyang had an outburst in class during an exam and ripped up the exam papers of a fellow student. Yu Jiaoyang got into trouble and was branded as emotionally unstable, which is a reputation that followed her to her current school that she attends with Zhou Can.

Yu Jiaoyang tells Zhou Can the secret that’s the real reason why she destroyed a fellow student’s exam papers. This secret is shown in a flashback but won’t be revealed in this review. When Zhou Can finds out this secret, it makes him admire Yu Jiaoyang even more, because it involves a sacrifice that Yu Jiaoyang made for a friend, at the risk of Yu Jiaoyang’s academic status and personal reputation.

Because “Almost Love” is a romantic drama, the movie has some scenes that are corny but can be endearing to viewers. For example, early on in their romance, Zhou Can enters the Shanghai Arts Exhibition Competition. To cheer him along, Yu Jiaoyang surprises him by showing up at the building where the competition is taking place. It’s raining outside, and to protect herself from getting wet, Yu Jiaoyang wears a trash bin with an opening for her eyes and nose.

From inside the building, Zhou Can sees Yu Jiaoyang running in the rain and calling out his name and winning him good luck in the competition. He eventually joins her outside by wearing the same type of trash bin, and they hold hands as they run in the rain together. There’s no explanation for where these unusual trash bins came from and why Zhou Can sees Yu Jiaoyang couldn’t just use umbrellas. Viewers will just have to go along with it as a cute romantic gesture that Zhou Can and Yu Jiaoyang demonstrate to each other,

“Almost Love” spends lot of time on the angst that Zhou Can goes through to pursue is dream of becoming a visual artist whose specialty is painted illustrations. His parents disapprove of this career choice because they think it’s unstable and doesn’t pay enough money. Yu Jiaoyang is fully supportive of Zhou Can, but his insecurities often get in the way of their relationship being taken to the level that Yu Jiaoyang wants.

Yu Jiaoyang often has fantasies of getting engaged to and married to Zhou Can. Whether or not those dreams come true is eventually shown in the movie. After Yu Jiaoyang and Zhou Can graduate from high school, he struggles with his career choice and often withholds his feelings from Yu Jiaoyang, who wants Zhou Can to open up to her more than he does. Yu Jiaoyang feels insulted by Zhou Can’s emotional aloofness when she thinks they should become closer as a couple, so it leads to arguments and the couple’s first major breakup.

Zhou Can and Yu Jiaoyang eventually reconcile with each other. Yu Jiaoyang gets a well-paying office job, while Zhou Can’s career as an artist is floundering. And just like in a real life, when one partner makes a lot more money than another partner in a love couple, it can lead to problems and a power imbalance.

Zhou Can’s parents have cut him off financially, and he feels insecure about Yu Jiaoyang making money than he does. Zhou Can doesn’t want to marry Yu Jiaoyang unless he’s the main breadwinner in the household. Meanwhile, Yu Jiaoyang feels like she’s ready to marry Zhou Can, who puts off talk about marriage with her as much as possible. Zhou Can’s avoidance of discussing marriage to Yu Jiaoyang leads to more arguments, and you can easily predict the rest.

Even though Yu Jiaoyang and Zhou Can clearly love each other, one of the best things about “Almost Love” is showing that real love might not always be happen at the right time and with the right person to make the relationship last. The love story of Yu Jiaoyang and Zhou Can has its ups and downs that are portrayed by Xu Ruohan and Li Wenhan in ways that look natural, not over-acted. The best scenes in the movie are in the last 20 minutes. The writing and directing of “Almost Love” are perfectly adequate, but viewers will be emotionally touched the most by the lead cast members’ performances, which impressively show how people’s views of love and heartbreak can change with age and emotional maturity.

China Lion Film Distribution released “Almost Love” in select U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2022. The movie was released in China on August 4, 2022.

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