Disclosure: the ticket was free, courtesy of my math teacher (who appears at 1:06–1:07 in the trailer) having helped the filming process. (I visited once and got to look at some of the cool equipment. Also, far away from everything, one of the director assistants sort of interviewed me. That is the full extent of my contribution, okay?) Except I was also sick with a cold so I might have been kind of miserable. Also I didn’t really have dinner that day, and we got home really late so I had to stay up even later doing homework. So those are the extent of my biases.
I guess this is a review of sorts.
The most important thing I have to say is this: X + Y is not a film primarily about math competitions or the IMO. It is a film about love, about autism, about accepting people who are different, about conquering your own psychological demons, about gender and family and cultural roles. But mostly about love. The film gets big novelty bonus points for a reasonably authentic look at the high school mathematics olympiad scene, but if you go watch this as a former contestant looking to relive some vicarious moments of glory and triumph through hard mathematical work and thinking, I’m pretty sure you’ll be disappointed. None of the main character’s important character development moments are related to becoming better at math. The IMO is largely a well-researched and extensively utilized plot device. (This is one of the acceptable usages of the word “utilize”, okay? Dear classmates: please stop using it as a seven-letter synonym for “use”.)
Some irrelevant blabbering: Before the screening, one of the official people involved came to the front and talked about how the film was a great Mother’s Day film and about the rich mathematics in Chinese history. Then we were shown an ad for an upcoming documentary “Messi” about the football player, in which, even though I thought the film would be about football, about half the scenes were of people sitting around behind restaurant tables talking with fancy high-stand wine glasses filled with water.
Okay, the film starts here, and so do my detailed thoughts.
Of course, one of the other selling points of the film to us is that a lot of it is set in Taiwan (like Lucy, with silly responses ensuing), both in terms of the plot and the actual filming location. In the very first shot, there’s a recognizable Taipei Metro station and a Hi-Life (which is, for my overseas readers, one of those other convenience stores that is like 7-11 but isn’t) in the background. There were some familiar buses too. It’s a cool feeling.
Then the plot starts happening and my thoughts just went all over the place, so instead I guess I’ll organize them by whether they were positive or negative. I think most of what follows is not really spoilery; I’ve ROT-13’ed the parts that are.
Things I liked about the film:
- Things happen quickly. Major plot events happen very rapidly after the start of the film, and keep happening rapidly for a while. You’ll know what I’m talking about.
- The film’s ending echoes and resolves a major plot point introduced early. There is cohesion; the main character learns something. This point is made more indirectly, but it should still be pretty obvious.
They went to some lengths to get the mathematics and most of the olympiad procedures right. Whew! Several olympiad questions, with difficulty all across the spectrum, are quoted verbatim in the movie, so if you get bored you can try to solve them mentally instead. I think the way most contestants take the IMO itself is quite accurate. They even designed their own Rubik’s-cube-based logo for the fictional IMO, and they used the authentic quintet of color-coded multilingual Myriad Pro cards that contestants use to signal that something’s up. The main character even gives a brief but complete solution to one problem on the blackboard. (A fragment of this appears in the trailer.) Unfortunately, the problem is trivial. Fortunately, Nathan’s solution is slightly more elegant and yields a bit more than the obvious induction.
I only caught two mistakes, and I think they only happened in the translated Chinese subtitles — once when somebody said “B − C + F = 2” (say what?), and once when the “Fields” of “Fields medal” was translated into 「領域」, generic fields of study. I also heard afterwards that the narration said the hardest IMO problem was a number theory problem and then proceeded to describe a geometric inequality involving a hexagon with weird parallels; I guess I missed that during the movie.
A final caveat: although the overall look of the IMO is good, the way it turns out in the film is quite unrealistic, although not in the way you’d expect, and I suppose it contributes to the film’s message. You just really have to accept that this film isn’t mainly about the math competition aspect of things.
- I admit I didn’t think too much about it during the film because I was mostly focused on the math competition aspects, but the motherly love bit is portrayed decently and freshly. There is a lot of nice plot purpose in the scene where she (ROT13) trgf gur pbnpu gb grnpu ure zngu gb trg vafvqr ure fba’f urnq.
- The film significantly exaggerates the number of females involved in mathematics competitions. But I guess it’s justified as part of the film’s stance on gender roles, which are indeed the source of one of its subplots/conflicts. And it’s set in the future, so who knows?
- The love pairs are kind of… arbitrary. Although maybe that’s the point the the film is trying to make. And looking back I have to say that both love relationships are somewhat justified and have possibly more than average scenes of build-up for big movies, so maybe my standards for Hollywood love are too stringent. It’s just that after the build-up, they accelerate at alarming speeds — I mean, well, accelerations. Meh. I guess that sells.
- The way the IMO problem’s phrasing at the end hits Nathan’s Trauma Button is a bit contrived. I think they could have come up with a graph-theoretic problem that does the same thing. But given that this was an actual “promotional olympiad” written for the film (which you can find floating on the UKMT) I guess I can let it pass.
Things I don’t like:
Having shown the resolution of one (or maybe two or three) of the main character’s biggest psychological struggles, as I mentioned, the film ends without resolving basically anything else. Characters and plot threads are dropped with reckless abandon.
This part is particularly spoilery so I’ve ROT13ed it. And, of course, if you are a more perceptive movie-watcher you might find these more resolved than I thought.
- N thl, rira zber bfgenpvmrq guna Anguna va gur bylzcvnq genvavat pnzc, vf frra phggvat uvzfrys va gur zvqqyr bs gur svyz (jvgu gur funec cbvag bs n pbzcnff). V qba’g xabj jung unccraf gb uvz be jung uvf vasyhrapr ba Anguna vf.
- Nsgre n ybat vagreany fgehttyr, Anguna’f pbnpu wbvaf n fhccbeg tebhc, juvpu jnf n uhtr cflpubybtvpny nqinapr sbe uvz, bxnl, svar, ohg gur pbasrffvba ur znxrf naq uvf fhofrdhrag nccnerag pngunefvf bayl qenjf zber nggragvba gb gur haerfbyirq dhrfgvba bs ubj uvf yvsr naq uvf eryngvbafuvc jvgu gur zbz pbagvahrf.
- Gur svyz raqf jvgubhg ernyyl erirnyvat jung unccraf orgjrra Anguna naq Munat Zrv be jvgu gurve cnegvpvcngvba va gur VZB. V’z npghnyyl svar jvgu gung fvapr jr pna cebonoyl rkgencbyngr sebz Anguna’f zbfg erprag eryringvbaf (ybir, lnl) naq sebz, jryy, pbzzba frafr (gurl trg qvfdhnyvsvrq ohg gurl qba’g pner nal zber orpnhfr gurl’ir sbhaq fbzrguvat zber vzcbegnag). Ohg jung raqf hc unccravat orgjrra Munat Zrv naq ure hapyr, be creuncf ure shgher qribgvba gb zngurzngvpf? Frrzf gb pbafvqrenoyl qvyhgr nal rapbhentrzrag gur svyz zvtug jnag gb tvir gb crbcyr svtugvat fgrerbglcrf bs orvat onq ng zngu be nalguvat ryfr.
- Okay, the elephant in the room: There is absolutely no justification given for why on Earth the UK team would fly to Taiwan to train… next to the Chinese team, who has also decided to train in Taiwan. I know this is Real Life Writes the Plot in that filming in China is politically trickier, but there’s not one second dedicated to lampshading this a bit, which ought to be easy to pull off if the film is set in 2018. (To make things worse, or at least more disappointing for the local niche audience, the Taiwanese team only appears on the screen a few moments in passing.)
- The olympiad team atmosphere is frustratingly competitive. Since the film has evidently put so much effort into getting the mathematical and logistic details right, down to the five colored cards, and also taken such a progressive stance/portrayal on girls in math, it’s extra disappointing to me to see how competitive it portrays olympiad culture to be. That’s probably second on my list of things I’d want a film about math olympiads to show (the first being that hard math does not consist of doing complicated calculations with big numbers, which the film probably handles fine.) The UK contestants are often alarmingly mean to each other, and the UK team coach explicitly says things like “it’s all about winning” and “I’ll be disappointed if you don’t all get medals”. To be fair, he also says stuff about how math is beautiful, and Nathan’s personal coach, who places more importance on personally loving math, does have a sort of victory in the end, but it does not look like a well-justified move in-universe at all. So I’m not actually sure what the movie’s attempted message in this regard is, if it has one.
Conclusion… should you watch it?
I’m not sure. Some of the unresolved threads still really bug me, but the novelty of a movie that goes to appreciable lengths to get the mathematical details right is still nice, and the components of interpersonal drama and intrapersonal growth are there and actually pretty novel themselves too, I think. I think I would have enjoyed it if somebody had told me ahead of time that, I repeat, this is not a film primarily about math competitions. If nothing else, you can challenge yourself to mentally solve as many olympiad problems mentioned in the movie as possible before it ends. (I didn’t.)
Also, please note that this post was written late at night before doing English homework and there are probably some things here I will have changed my opinion of after a rereading tomorrow, but the alternative is not posting this until it’s awkward and then never posting it at all, so I guess I should post. You know, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.