Dir: Li Shaohong. China. 2004. 100mins

Had the Berlin festival in February been just a touch more adventurous it might have scheduled Baober In Love as the Chinese film in competition rather than Sylvia Chang's pleasant but predictable 20 30 40. Programmed in the International Forum sidebar, the surprising Baober was allowed to languish. Its qualities of entertainment, modernity and visual excitement were better displayed at this month's Hong Kong International Film Festival, where it was showcased as the opening night gala.

The film may catch out many distributors. Some may initially be put off by director Li Shaohong's worthy but dull reputation, from which this is a radical break. And those western buyers that are intrigued enough to view it may find themselves struggling to know how to programme a Chinese picture that is neither artily meaningful, nor commercially constructed with accessible narrative and a happy ending. A snowballing festival career seems the most likely outcome.

In a splish-splash of inter-cutting, speeded-up images and alternated lenses, the first segment of the film brings together two flawed personalities and their different histories. Baober (Zhou) is a romantic, speedy, young woman, whose character is imbued with the many economic, social and urban upheavals of China since the Cultural Revolution. The older man Liu (Huang) is another reflection of contemporary China; successful, wealthy and bored with an empty marriage to a materialistic wife.

They come together when Baober discovers one of the videotapes on which Liu records his confessions of boredom and his dreams of finding real love and passion. Baober throws herself at Liu, whose marriage soon collapses as a result, and the two set up home in a super loft-living warehouse pad. The breathless melee of special effects, emotional tests and zig-zagging story means that the boyish, sexy Baober is presented as an idealist and a do-gooder, rather than a marriage-wrecking bitch. (This is a Chinese Amelie, not a Fatal Attraction.) In fact, Baober comes across as a little unhinged.

The weirdness grows as the new couple settle down and Baober's inherent unease resurfaces. She is plagued by unhappy childhood memories and runs away, forcing Liu in his search to probe her spiritual side.

Zhou brings with her some of the quality and atmosphere of her previous film Suzhou River and performs a couple of sex scenes which are explicit by Chinese standards.

The mixture of old and new, sane and insane, gritty and stylishly-designed give director Li and her Franco-Chinese technical team reason to enjoy themselves with digital and traditional visual effects. Armed with a hefty $5m budget and access to French effects house Duboi (Delicatessen, Amelie, Brotherhood Of The Wolf) they use a spinning canvas with larger-than-life, distorted objects and scenery (and scenes) that merge uneasily. Add in a classy sound design and the result is a film enriched by its technological prowess. Particularly effective is a scene in a vertiginous library, where Baober's father 'dies'.

Where the film may disappoint is its fragmented story and the darkening tone of the final 20 minutes in which fantasy is traded for a creeping realisation that everything seen so far may simply have been the product of a diseased mind.

Dir: Li Shaohong
Li Xiaowan
Prod co/int sales:
Beijing Rosat Film & Television Production Co (+86-10-84583121, Rosat2002@vip.sina.com)
Zheng Zhong, Wang Yao
Zeng Nianping
Yann Malcor, Liu Quing
Prod des:
Tim Yip
Art dir:
Wong Ka-Nang
Tetsuya Komuro, Franco Perry, Pierre Bonhomme, Damien Vergnaud
Main cast:
Zhou Yun, Huang Jue