THIS IS NOT WHAT I EXPECTED (2017) review

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The directing debut of editor Derek Hui, who in his relatively young career has already cut films for Derek Yee, Chen Kaige, Teddy Chan and Peter Chan (who is a producer here) among others, This Is Not What I Expected stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as Lu Jin, a filthy-rich hotel acquisition consultant with exacting expectations when it comes to accommodation, service and food in the establishments he visits. As he appraises the luxurious Rosebud Hotel, he finds much with which to be dissatisfied, until he tastes a dish prepared by young sous-chef Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu). It’s a revelation for Jin, and though he keeps butting heads with Shengnan outside of the hotel, he finds himself enthralled by her culinary skill, as she keeps surpassing herself in the hopes to save the hotel from a buyout. Slowly, unexpected feelings start burgeoning between the germaphobe perfectionist and the quirky, hyperactive chef.

Opposites attracting, conflicts of interests and feelings, cooking as a metaphor for relationships… This Is Not What I Expected deals in some of the most used tropes of the romantic comedy, and yet manages to combine them into something fresh and infectious, much like, well, a great cook can arrange the most familiar ingredients into a delight for the palate. It’s a rote metaphor to use, but it has rarely been more apt. It starts with two impossibly charming leads. Kaneshiro as his handsomest, deftly making what would be a insufferable douchebag in real life into a charming and compelling romantic lead, without removing too much of his rough, infuriating edges.

Zhou Dongyu launches, right from her very first seconds onscreen, a full-on cute offensive. That may sound tiring, but such his her skill as an actress that she only rarely goes overboard, and remains irresistibly funny and endearing throughout, with, in key moments, the emotional subtlety she is known for. Their chemistry is quite flawless: truly opposites yet after 100 minutes of eating and bickering, unmistakably belonging together. And unlike so many romantic comedies, this is not a film that feels the need to drop the comedy and get soapy in the final act. In fact, in lieu of teary vows, it delivers as its romantic finale something hilariously spiky but nonetheless quite heartfelt.

The film does run a bit longer than it should, with a truly pointless subplot about Shengnan’s friend played by supermodel Ming Xi, and perfunctory daddy issues for Jin (though Chang Kuo Chu does make a nice cameo as Jin’s father). Lin Chi Ling’s arrival in the last third of the film is also an unfortunately awkward attempt at generating some kind of love triangle. On the other hand, Tony Yang is underused as Shengnan’s lame and vain boss and boyfriend, who dumps in the most tactless way imaginable then tries to win her back in the most pathetic way possible. Yang shows truly excellent comedic chops and would have deserved more screen-time.

Visually the film is a treat: beyond the glorious food porn and the pleasingly unforced pastel hues of the cinematography, there are also unexpected flourishes, like a montage including a dance number from the hotel personnel, an uproariously simple ‘tripping’ sequence (having eaten poisonous blowfish, Jin and Shengnan start imagining that it is raining and that they can control the rain), a delightfully over-the-top approach to describing culinary appreciation (think Spaghetti Western music, transcendant image juxtapositions and bewildered facial expressions), and even slightly strange details like overeager twin attendants. Derek Hui the director is a talent to watch closely.

Long Story Short: Delightfully heartfelt, unforcedly quirky, infectiously funny and carried by a truly appealing couple of leads, This Is Not What I Expected is an excellent romantic comedy, and the best culinary comedy in a long while. ****

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