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.

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THE OLD CINDERELLA (2014) short review

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Co-written and produced by Lu Chuan, Wubai’s The Old Cinderella is a slightly above-average romantic comedy in which a thirty-something tour guide (Zhang Jingchu), divorces her husband of five years (Pan Yueming), after she finds out he cheated on her with a TV presenter. Keeping custody of their son, she moves back to her old flat and lets her best friend (Zhu Zhu) arrange blind dates for her, but the only man who catches her fancy is a young Taiwanese businessman (Kenji Wu). Meanwhile, her ex-husband tries to win her back. Romantic comedies tend to live or die on the appeal of their leads, and The Old Cinderella is certainly blessed by the presence of Zhang Jingchu in a performance that is in turns charming, affecting, sexy and funny, and sometimes, impressively, all at once. The film does tick off a checklist of romantic comedy tropes: funny blind dates, glitzy parties, an exotic, soul-searching location (here Jerusalem), and trying on dresses, to name just a few. But amidst these entertaining but often rote goings-on, there are hints of depth: the emotional toll of divorce is not glossed over, and the burden of failed expectations in initially promising relationships is addressed in some a few heartbreaking scenes where Pan Yueming shines as the ex-husband whose guilt leads to emotional self-destruction. Kenji Wu, who is the focus of the more light-hearted and romantic side of the film, is likable enough, but never matches Zhang’s sheer class. The Old Cinderella 2 came out a year later, but with completely different characters, cast, and crew. ***

MY FAIR GENTLEMAN (2009) short review

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A very loose remake of George Cukor’s My Fair Lady, Peter Lee’s My Fair Gentleman was produced – among others – by John Woo and Michelle Yeoh. It actually only retains the idea of making someone fit for high society, ditching almost everything else including the songs and the phonetics angle. It also relocates to China, swaps genders and modifies the stakes, so that instead of a misogynistic phonetics professor transforming a cockney flower girl into a lady for a bet in London, we have an ex-socialite and head of a marketing company Wu (Kelly Lin) who gives uncouth nouveau riche Zeng (Sun Honglei) a makeover both in sartorial elegance and in good manners and culture, so that he may have a chance to woo top model Fong-Na (Ling Hung), in Shanghai. Along the way, of course, Wu and Zeng develop feelings for each other. This harmless little romantic comedy has none of the wit of George Cukor’s film, and its mostly uninspired script is never lifted by Peter Lee’s workmanlike’s direction. Still, it does benefit from the very appealing duet of Sun Honglei, who has a lot of fun in a broad but appealing performance, and Kelly Lin, whose unassuming comic timing comes with a refreshingly down-to-earth charm. And contrary to many Chinese romantic comedies, My Fair Gentleman runs at a reasonable 85 minutes, its briskness compensating for its triteness. **1/2

PARIS HOLIDAY (2015) review

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A film for people who think there’s nothing more romantic than cycling in front of the Eiffel Tower, James Yuen’s Paris Holiday (which briefly shot not 100 meters from where yours truly lives) stars Louis Koo as Chun-Kit, a late professional bloomer who arrives in Paris to manage a wine label for a wealthy Hong Kong businessman (Anthony Chan). There, fellow expatriate Michael (Alex Fong) sets him up in a flat share with Xiao-Min (Amber Kuo) an art students who’s still a human wreck from being dumped by the man she thought was her soulmate. In order not too have her feel threatened by a man’s presence, Michael asks Chun-Kit to pretend he’s gay. The cohabitation gets off to a disastrous start, as Chun-Kit has to deal with Xiao-Min’s erratic hygiene and behavior; but after nearly leaving, he decides to stay and help her get back on her feet. A tall order, but he’s just rebounded from a painful break-up himself, and the two soon find themselves in a strange place between love and friendship.

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MY DNA SAYS I LOVE YOU (2007) short review

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An unfathomably odd little romantic comedy from Taiwan, Lee Yun Chan’s My DNA Says I Love You follows to twenty-something roommates who both work at a bio-tech company that develops medication meant to suppress certain genes, such as the “fat gene” or the “clean freak gene” (yes, a lot of thought and research went into this film’s science). One of them (Terri Kwan) meets and falls in love with a charming but sloppy prosthetic engineer (Peter Ho), and starts taking a pill that represses her “clean freak gene”, while the other (Yu Nan) is wooed by her charming landlord (Eddie Peng) but rejects her because she’s afraid he’ll discover she’s obesity-prone and needs to take pills that repress her “fat gene”. My DNA Says I Love You is every bit as head-scratchingly bizarre as that plot synopsis might lead you to believe. At its core it’s nothing more than a trite romantic comedy with attractive people that alternatively pursue and reject one another until they finally get on the same page. But it’s dressed with the aforementioned shoddy scientific premise, some incredibly weird plot turns (one subplot features yellow slimy mold literally coming to life and overrunning an apartment) and a sitcom-grade aesthetic with matching cheap soundtrack. The cast is appealing, especially a fun and likable Eddie Peng in only his second film: a scene where he tries to get in a Tango show by mumbling fake Spanish to the ushers is one of the film’s only genuine laughs. Terri Kwan indulges in tooth-rotting cuteness, while Peter Ho does what he can with a character named Anteater. Yu Nan however seems a bit out of place, giving an affecting performance that clashes with the silliness that surrounds it. *1/2

ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE (2015) short review

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Richie Jen and Andy Luo’s All You Need Is Love was the first – and better – of the two Taiwanese romances starring Shu Qi that were released in 2015, the other being the thudding The Last Women Standing. Here she plays Fen, a haughty travel writer visiting Penghu, a sun-drenched archipelago in which she’s booked a Bed & Breakfast owned by Bu (Richie Jen) and his stern father (Ti Lung). Things get off to a bad start as the B&B is much more rustic than what she expected, and her snobbish behavior clashes with Bu’s simple ways. But when her luggage and passport get lost at sea, she has no choice but to bide her time at the B&B, where she slowly gets won over by Bu and the goofy villagers of Penghu. All You Need Is Love basically ticks off all the most common romantic comedy tropes, opposing money and love, city and country, commitment and selfishness, living in the past and seizing the day, all of it against a dreamy touristic backdrop adorned with cute kids and goofy supporting characters. That it all entertains charmingly rather than annoy is down to Shu Qi and Richie Jen’s winning chemistry, the former having a blast as a screechy snob who slowly gets thawed, and the latter too old to be a goofy romantic lead but unassumingly appealing nevertheless. There’s also a touching supporting turn from the great Ti Lung as a steely father who’s also a loving widower; though underdeveloped, it’s a nice subplot that balances out more unfortunate plot turns, like a stupid reality show Bu takes part in. All in all a warm, fuzzy and forgettable little romance. **1/2

THE LAST WOMEN STANDING (2015) review

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Shu Qi has had an interesting 2015: in between a critical triumph (Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Assassin) and a box office high (Wuershan’s Mojin: The Lost Legend) were two romances, both fairly unsuccessful. Richie Jen’s All You Need Is Love was more on the goofy side, while writer Luo Luo’s directorial debut – and adaptation of her own book – The Last Women Standing is a more dramatic affair. It follows Ruxi (Shu Qi), a driven businesswoman who’s great at her job but unlucky in love. Now well past thirty and still single, she’s among what Chinese society labels as “leftover women”. Her concerned parents (Pan Hong and Chin Shih-chieh) set her up with an upright but somewhat dull doctor (Xing Jiadong), but her heart has already chosen Ma Sai (Eddie Peng), a kind, handsome co-worker she just met. Her feelings for him are reciprocal and soon they’re in a dreamy relationship but the trouble is, he’s afraid of commitment.

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LOVERS & MOVIES (2015) short review

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Niu Chaoyang’s Lovers & Movies is one of those all-star Valentines Day cash-ins based on the blueprint of Gary Marshall’s Valentines Day : criss-crossing love stories across generations, played out by a few stars out for an easy paycheck. And so here we have a fifty-something woman (Kara Hui), who finds out her husband (Simon Yam) is having an affair, while her son is getting into bad ways and pushing away his girlfriend. Also, a cab driver (Francis Ng) is in love with a dance teacher (Yu Nan), whose five year-old son needs snow to win over a girl he likes at school. And a fangirl (Gulnazar) gets to meet her heartthrob idol (Kim Bum), after which they fall in love. It all unfolds in impossibly trite fashion, as platitudes about love are spoken in every scene over a treacly score, and grand romantic gestures are performed in ways that are often actually more creepy than endearing : witness Gulnazar barging in on a film scene being shot in a studio by the man she loves, by jumping off a wall, strapped on cables, with a red streamer that says ‘I love you’. Someone call the cops. The cast, which could have saved the film, is too uneven to manage that. Kara Hui and Yu Nan valiantly try to make unlikable characters worth sticking with, but Francis Ng expresses most emotions by smiling weirdly, and Simon Yam gives a performance so listless he probably took this film as a break from acting. And out of decency, let’s not mention the rest of the cast. *1/2

I DO (2012) short review

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Sun Zhou’s I Do follows Tang Weiwei (Li Bingbing), a thirty-something business woman who’s given her all to her career, neglecting her love life after being left heartbroken a decade before by her boyfriend Wang Yang (Duan Yihong), a struggling graphic designer she had supported through difficult times. Now she’s finally ready to get in a relationship again, and in comes Yang Nianhua (Sun Honglei), a former publisher gone bankrupt, whose easy-going charm and selfless devotion make him a prime suitor. But things get complicated as Wang Yang suddenly reappears in Weiwei’s life : now a wealthy businessman, he plans to win her back. It’s the tried and true rom-com formula of the woman torn between two opposites: here, the rich old flame or the modest but charming new leaf. The dilemma unfolds in a thuddingly talky way, each of the usual stakes (does wealth matter more than devotion, can we forgive someone who’s broken our heart once, etc…) being discussed at length against the backdrop of fancy restaurants, sleek offices and luxury apartments, while several subplots involving under-developped supporting characters either fall flat or go nowhere. And if I Do remains watchable, it’s because it has in Li Bingbing a lead actress of tremendous class and subtlety, whose chemistry with Sun Honglei (in a full-on charm attack) and Duan Yihong (excellent in a more thankless role) is immaculate. Would that all romantic comedies had such appealing leads. **1/2