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Monday, April 8, 2013

Finding Mr. Right & The Chef, The Actor and The Scoundrel

Finding Mr. Right is about finding love when you are not exactly looking for it, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. Tang Wei, infamous in China for her sex scene in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution that got her banned from Chinese films for a number of years, stars as Jiajia an expecting mother who travels to the US from China to give birth to a child whose father is married to another woman. The idea of a woman being shamed to leave he country to give birth could make a great film, but alas Finding proved to be nothing more than a conventional romcom something it appeared desperate to prove. Jiajia travels to Seattle because she likes the film Sleepless in Seattle. We soon find out that she is spoiled, entitled and obnoxious, immediately clashing with her costar Wu Xiubo who plays Frank, the too-nice nice guy who drives around pregnant Chinese women who have come to America to give birth. Over the course of nine months Tang Wei’s character slowly sheds her childish behavior, selfishness and naiveté. As she learns to become less dependent on money and it’s luxuries she also grows closer to Frank, who is himself going through divorce and custody battles with a woman obsessed with money and career advancement.

Finding leans on cultural differences for comedic effect. Arriving in Seattle Jiajia has to mime her way through customs. She doesn’t understand life in America, but to the filmmaker’s credit the foreign land is not presented as some dystopia where she is alienated and all alone. She is able to get by even if the film has an improbable amount of Mandarin speakers. The fact that the film took place in the present day and that it acknowledged that social problems exist (which is not to say that there was a sharp critique of these problems) were things that I could appreciate. The film deals with the growing perception of wealth as the most important thing in modern Chinese culture. Jiajia tries to solve every problem with money earning her the ire of her fellow expatriates. Those fellow expatriates are also women who went to America because Chinese society wouldn’t have them giving birth in China. In Jiajia’s case she is the mistress of the never seen Mr. Zhong, the unfaithful businessman who blinded by money and women neglects his family. He also neglects Jiajia and soon she and Frank become each other’s solace. Frank is there for Jiajia when her child is born and she is there for Frank when he has to go to his ex-wife’s wedding. Together they begin to craft a life together just when Mr. Zhong returns to the picture, in voice only, summoning Jiajia back to China.

The acting is standard romcom fare, save a few of the Westerners who were clearly cast on a budget. The film looks good and contains some great footage of Seattle in particular. There is a montage at the end of the film that too blatantly shows us the passage of time. The film contains a few other time jumps that are a bit jarring, like the jump from Jiajia’s settling in period in the autumn to Christmas. Of course those are small potatoes compared to the ridiculous and poorly setup reunion of Frank and Jiajia at the end of the film; a cookie cutter ending too coincidental to take seriously. From the onset of the film it was clear that the two characters we were introduced to would end up together, but there were other routes to deliver the same package. Clearly the director is a fan of American romcoms, notably Sleepless in Seattle. Like Sleepless in Seattle, Finding fits in its time, allowing its characters to find love in a modern world and because of modern circumstances. Unfortunately Finding is twenty years later than Sleepless and is seemingly happy with itself so long as it manages to make you think of Rob Reiner’s film.

I saw the trailer for the Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel months before the film came out. In the interim I became a fan of Huang Bo, a Chinese comedic actor who recently shot to even greater fame in China after the absurd success of his film Lost in Thailand. Huang Bo is a natural comedian; to look at him is to experience something tragic and human but also something funny. He was the main highlight of Lost in Thailand, a film that was a PG-13 version of the Hangover II. There was, however, nothing Huang Bo could do to save this latest film from being a travesty.

The trailer for the film showcases all of the action sequences of the film but none of the plot. From the trailer I guessed the story was some kind of strange love affair, it looked like Amelie mixed with the Wild Wild West. Two minutes into the film, however, it was obvious that it was neither of those films. Twenty minutes into the film the story comes into focus: the actual plot was revealed to be about the Japanese. Like Nazis in American films, Japanese are the go-to bad guys in Chinese films and not without reason. That being said I felt deceived. The Chef appeared to be a film that was going to be different than the other Chinese films I had seen this year. Instead it was the same basic plot: a couple brave patriots work behind the scenes to wrestle secrets from the hands of the Japanese in order to save the country. I’m not criticizing the storyline, I just wonder how often the same one can be used.

Huang Bo has a couple scenes that are funny. It was disappointing to learn that his production company had a hand in the film. I’m not sure what he saw in the project. Lost in Thailand may have been just another silly comedy, but at least it did a good job of showcasing Huang Bo’s comedic acting. The Chef spends too much time delivering an overly complicated story about a chef, an actor and a scoundrel who are all playing their parts simply to lure the Japanese into making a mistake. The later portion of the film can’t maintain the small spark of interest the first fifteen minutes of the film generated. The result is the same story rehashed with brighter colors and all the usual tropes. The effect is dizzying but for all the wrong reasons.

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