Plot: not everything is what it seems in an utopian elite community…
Perfect-Lover.com (程序戀人 domestically and Perfect-Lover.com 2036 internationally) is in all likelihood the finest new robot lover feature. Not that things weren’t pointing to such eventuality with South Korea delivering I’m Not A Robot (로봇이 아니야 ) (2017), Are You Human Too? (너도 인간이니) (2018), and My Holo Love (나 홀로 그대) (2020). A decade’s worth of lesser imitations (some charming in their own dim way) hasn’t dulled the resonating power of My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) and Air Doll (2009) in the slightest. Perfect-Lover.com showcases that once every few years Mainland China produces a piece of cinema that just might take off internationally. That there hasn’t been a US remake of My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) is, by all means, a good thing as it’s too quirky to appeal to general audiences. Perfect-Lover.com (Perfect Lover hereafter) on the other hand is slick and has enough international cross-market appeal as to function a pilot for a series or to be expanded into a two-hour theatrical feature. Neither is it in any shape or form affiliated with the 2019 Migi Studio-Green Curry/Mango Party casual adult videogame of the same name.
In the past decade Mainland China has greatly contributed to the world of otaku fantasy fulfillment – and not necessarily for the better. The quality of the screenplay is inversely proportional to the bust size of whichever Weibo model or hostess happens to portray the A.I. girlfriend. For every iGirl (2016) there’s a Heavenly Machine Maid (2017) and for every Inflatable Lover (2017) there’s a much better Inflatable Girlfriend (2018). Some are as sentimental and romantic as My Holo Love (2020) and precious few are as well-written as I’m Not A Robot (2017) or Are You Human Too? (2018). It almost goes without saying that the law of diminishing returns is the only constant with these features and no matter which part of My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) and Air Doll (2008) they are imitating, there’s always someone worse. Seldom are any of these features able to compete with their South Korean counterparts and even rarer are the ones able to stand on equal footing with their original inspirations. Perfect Lover is one such occasion and the new Sino standard for these things.
The year is 2036. Society is organized through big data analysis and the determinant factor for anybody’s lifestyle and class is their personal SCP (Social Credit Points). To obtain a higher SCP and climb the social ladder everyone works to improve their reputation, status, gain, and respect. To allow humanity to continually better themselves AI technology has advanced to such a degree that humans and robots coexist and are virtually impossible to tell apart. Ming (Ming Dao) has a score of 9.0 and as the world’s highest-ranking designer he has constructed Nuremberg, a private community exclusive to 8.0 or higher senior members strictly off-limits for robots of any kind. Chloe (Marina Ye Qing) is a young woman with a 6-point SCP that has spent much of her years in celibacy to obtain impeccable credentials to maximize her upward social mobility. She’s elated when she’s among the select few qualifying for access to the upper social echelons and all the perks that come with it. When Ming was promoted she became an 8-point senior through association and now is expected to enter into Nuremberg. At the welcoming party Ming and his wife Anna (Sarah Bolger) are the power couple and celebrities in their own right. Ming and Chloe engage in a philosophical debate about the merits of celibacy and companionship - but Chloe can’t help but notice that her being single is frowned upon. She surmises that in order to fully integrate she’s expected to have an equally outstanding partner at her side.
For years Chloe has longed for a lover but she never had the time because of her single-minded focus on maximizing her SCP score. Many nights of soul-searching and crying her eyes out pass. In a moment of paralyzing desperation, she decides to log in on perfect-lover.com and customizes a personal cyborg companion with help from tech support (Xu Kai-Cheng). The next day the order is delivered at her studio. Angelo (Marcelo Olguín) is exactly what the site promised he would be and thus is perfect in every conceivable way. Chloe is blissfully happy to have him around and soon the two are inseparable. The one caveat with perfect-lover.com is that buyers are instructed to take an amnesia pill once the transaction is complete. In her euphoria Chloe has forgotten, and she has been invited to the next Nuremberg social engagement. At the party Chloe and Angelo are the center of attention yet Ming is strangely reserved. He finds Chloe’s sudden social upgrade suspicious and lectures her on the strict no-robot policy of the community and the immediate expulsion in which it results. When Angelo comes to Chloe’s defense Ming is not afraid to pull a gun. The two engage in an altercation and in the fracas it becomes clear that Ming has a sordid secret of his own.
The most interesting aspect of Perfect Lover perhaps is its curious mix of Eastern and Western talent behind and in front of the camera. Headlining is prolific television actress Marina Ye Qing (叶青). The most recognizable thing she has done (at least to Western eyes) is a 2016 Sino remake of My Best Friend's Wedding (1997). Then there’s Xu Kai-Cheng in a speaking part. He most recently turned up in the fantasy wuxia The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity (2020). How Sarah Bolger from In America (2002), The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) and the television series The Tudors (2008-2010) and Once Upon a Time (2012-2015) ended up in Mainland China is anybody’s guess but, as always, she’s solid and reliable. The same goes for Argentinian model/talent scout Marcelo Olguín, and famed Hollywood directors of photography Stuart Bentley and Tom Wilkinson. Olguín commutes frequently between America and China, but for Bolger and the two DPs this looks to have been nothing more than a one-off venture outside of their familiar Anglo-Saxon territories.
In just 20 minutes Perfect Lover examines everything from social order and hierarchy, racial segregation and – profiling, to the advent of artificial intelligence, and the commodification of said technology in the global marketplace, the transactional nature of artificial companionship, as well as mechanized miscegenation, robot ethics and law, and reactionary political minorities that are bound to crop up in light of such social – and technological advancements. It comes as a timely a response to the growing problem of hikikomori (social withdrawal typically afflicting adolescent males initially believed to be a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, as first observed by researcher Yoshimi Kasahara in 1978, and studied more in depth by psychiatrist Tamaki Saito in 1998) and the far more toxic Western variant of the incel.
Call Perfect Lover a modern-day The Creation of the Humanoids (1962), if you will – but as a short feature it is wonderfully literate, graceful in its sophistication, cerebral without becoming overly talky or pretentious, and unafraid to venture headlong into intellectually challenging/stimulating territory. The beauty of Perfect Lover is the degree of nuance in how it treats its various questions and observations. It took what My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) explored on a personal level and applies it to a much larger societal – and economic framework. Perfect Lover is not afraid to ask big questions and this is probably the closest to a modern-day thematic continuation/expansion upon the foundation of Blade Runner (1982). Perfect Lover understands that the devil is always in the details and it handles them so elegantly and effortlessly. Quite ambitious for an unassuming made-for-streaming short film that you can find, subtitled and all, with a just a few simple clicks on YouTube (or Youku in the homeland).