Thursday, July 25, 2013

AAIFF ’13: Together

The teenaged Xiao Yang is not exactly Cyrano de Bergerac.  Nevertheless, he will do his best to recycle both love letters and lovers.  The course of true love never runs smooth, but he will sometimes help it along in Hsu Chao-jen’s multi-character rom-com, Together (trailer here), which screens this Saturday during the 2013 Asian American International Film Festival.

Scooping up his classmate’s discarded love letter, Xiao Yang is determined to put it to good use.  Perhaps his buddy Ma Chih-hao can re-purpose it.  Having just dumped his girlfriend, Ma pines for the cute cashier working at their favorite bakery, whose manager in turn nurses a crush on Xiao Yang’s older sister.  Of course, she is already involved with a rich jerk, who does not think much of Xiao Yang.

Yes, this is the sort of film where viewers could use a flowchart to keep track of who like whom.  However, his parents’ relationship is easy to pick-up on. The magic has left the easy going Bin’s marriage to more assertive Min-min.  Ironically, the print shop proprietor soon finds himself producing wedding invitations as his own marriage takes a chilly turn.  The free-spirited Lily has recently returned to their Taipei neighborhood to marry Haru, the staid owner of the local Japanese bookstore.  Yet, the strangely ambiguous chemistry between her and Bin is still there.

Despite all the romantic confusion, the tone of Together is much more bittersweet than cutesy.  In fact, for domestic audiences, it is downright nostalgic, given the casting of Kenny Bee and Lee Lieh as Xiao Yang’s parents, who were amongst the break-out co-stars of the classic melodrama The Story of a Small Town. Of course, it is all headed towards a happy place, but there are more surprises and less sentimentality in the third act than one might expect.

Happily, Huang Shao-yang’s Xiao Yang grows on viewers over time, as his character starts using his brattiness for good rather than ill.  His presence somewhat suggests a young Taiwanese Leonardo DiCaprio, except he is already considerably more manly (as is everyone else in the cast).  Bee remains charismatic in middle age, nicely crooning the film’s signature love song. Supermodel-actress Sonia Sui lights up the screen as Lily, while developing some reasonably believable chemistry with the significantly older Bee.  Lee Lieh also does her best to punch-up Min-min, despite her somewhat problematic scoldiness.

Indeed, Hsu definitely favors Bee’s Bin over the rest of the large ensemble. Still, he invests the film with a forgiving vibe that is rather endearing.  His unhurried pace might be a bit too languid for slavishly conventional viewers, but Hsu has a good eye for composition and Blaire Ko’s slightly latin-ish score helps it all go down quite smoothly.  Recommended with a fair degree of affection for those who enjoy slightly offbeat love stories and family dramas, Together screens this Saturday (7/27) at the New York Institute of Technology, as part of this year’s AAIFF.