Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chinese Rom-Com: Hot Summer Days

For most Americans, Chinese cinema conjures images of costume dramas and martial arts mayhem. Festival patrons might just as easily think of long, slow art films from Jia Zhangke and his contemporaries. Yet, Chinese movies goers like a good rom-com as much as anyone else, so for Fox International’s first Chinese film production, co-directors Tony Chan and Wing Shya intertwine four to six love stories (depending on how you count them) in the romantic anthology Hot Summer Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For Asian film connoisseurs, Summer has “guilty pleasure” written all over it. Featuring big name HK, Mainland, and Taiwanese actors and pop-stars, it certainly has an attractive cast. During one scorching hot summer, several sets of couples pursue romance, with wildly varying results. In this case, Summer’s large cast of characters is an advantage. Screenwriter Chan creates a number of relatively entertaining rom-com premises, which are not completely beaten into the ground thanks to its braided structure and large ensemble cast.

In provincial China, Xiao Fan pines for a cute worker in the local teddy bear factory. Reluctant to get involved with a player, she insists he prove his devotion by faithfully standing in the noonday sun for one hundred straight days before she will go out with him. Meanwhile, a Sushi Chef may have realized just in time he sabotaged something good with his girl friend. However, she will not make it easy for him. Each time he calls, she adds another post-it to her apartment window and she won’t answer until she has filled in the entire heart-shaped pattern.

Amongst the working classes, a wrong-number STM leads to a Sleepless in Seattle-style flirtation between Hong Kong-based Wah and Shenzhen-based Li Yan, though naturally both misrepresent themselves. Air-conditioner repairman Ah Wai would have been considered the poorest of the lot, but with the current heat wave, he is suddenly flush, allowing him to aggressively pursue his mystery biker girl. In what seems to be Summer’s odd-man-out story arc, a suddenly blinded fashion photographer’s search for the model he wronged appears to be more about closure than romance. Yet, it ultimately ties the film together well enough for government work.

Ah Wai’s motorcycle romance is easily Summer’s most manipulative storyline, but also its most cinematic. Indeed, Barbie Hsu is quite beautiful and surprisingly effective supplying the film’s tear-jerking moments. As the text-messengers, Jacky Cheung and RenĂ© Liu probably represent the film’s most likable and realistically grounded couple. Though the upper-class culinary love story is the film’s least involving (despite the radiant present of Vivian Hsu as “Wasabi”) it leads to film’s best scene, when Maggie Cheung (a true superstar) making a cameo appearance as a lovelorn restaurant customer, upstages everyone. Martial arts fans will also enjoy seeing Shaolin star Gordon Liu as Wai’s estranged father, desperately seeking a discontinued light bulb for his dearly departed wife’s shrine, in what arguably constitutes the film’s sixth strand.

Summer very clearly follows in the tradition of Hollywood date movies, but it actually somewhat surpasses most recent examples of the genre. Fine, call it a guilty pleasure, but on the art-house circuit, the film’s utter lack of cynicism is quite refreshing. Nearly as cute as its cast, the completely apolitical Summer opens this Friday (10/1) in New York at the Quad Cinema.