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Us and Them
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Us and Them is a 2018 Chinese romantic drama spanning a 10-year relationship between a young man and woman that exists in the gray area between friends and lovers. The movie is in Chinese with English subtitles. Characters are often drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. In one scene, the lead male character gets severely drunk and then gets into a fistfight with two men. There's some sex: The two lead characters pretend to have sex in one scene, loudly moaning so their flatmates can hear them. After a lengthy discussion of favorite porn stars with a flatmate who copies and sells pirated pornographic films on the black market, the lead characters sell these pirated copies in a makeshift black market in a subway stop. Some profanity is heard, including "f--k" used a few times. Overall, the romantic melodrama might be too much for some viewers. However, the themes of young people coming of age in China during a time of rapid economic transformation, and how those societal values play a role in the characters' actions, could be a worthwhile family discussion.
What's the story?
In US AND THEM, during the 2007 Chinese New Year, Jian Qing (Jing Boran) and Xiao Xiao (Zhou Dongyu), two young adults, meet on a packed train leaving Beijing for their hometown for the holiday. Over the course of a train ride filled with drinking, card games, and pranks on other passengers, Jian Qing and Xiao Xiao begin to develop a bond that will last for years. But while Jian Qing has feelings for Xiao Xiao that go beyond friendship, Xiao Xiao seems to prefer being in relationships with older men whose financial and material success far outweighs their physical appearance, personality, and the fact that they are often already married. In Beijing, the two work numerous odd jobs to make ends meet as Jian Qing works to become a successful video game developer. Over time, as Xiao Xiao becomes less materialistic, Jian Qing struggles with trying to pursue his life's dream as his friends become more financially successful. Their relationship is shown through a series of flashbacks as Jian Qing and Xiao Xiao in the present day run into each other and get reacquainted after their flight out of Beijing is canceled. As they talk, they reflect on what might have been, and must contend with what could still be, despite all the changes in themselves and in the world around them.
Is it any good?
This romantic drama feels like two movies in one. On one hand, there's a beautifully filmed romance centered on the dreams, passions, and ambitions of the two lead characters against a backdrop of China's continuing rapid economic transformations between 2007 and the present, and how the values of this society influence who they are and what they want. On the other hand, there is a mawkish melodrama that gradually takes over as the movie progresses to an overly emotional descent into the realm of cliché. The latter doesn't ruin the movie, but it comes close to doing so. Fortunately, the former transcends the genre and finds the universal experience in two people existing in the gray area between friendship and love while coming of age.
That said, the viewer doesn't necessarily have to be familiar with the recent history of China and the Chinese economy to follow the action, but such understanding might make the movie more enjoyable overall. There's a strong possibility that the nuance and intricacies of the Chinese culture and its impact on the story and these characters will be lost on Western audiences. The slower pace and the aforementioned melodrama might also turn off audiences looking for a romantic movie with a more straightforward story. But when it's good, Us and Them masterfully captures a moment in time and place, and how that time and place informed the values, dreams, and practical considerations of two young people in and out of love over 10 years.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about romantic dramas. How does Us and Them compare to other movies in which two people fall in and out of love?
Why do you think scenes set in the present were in black and white, and the flashback scenes were in color?
What are some of the ways in which the movie evokes the recent past in pop culture and Chinese society?
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