Sunday, July 05, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Café. Waiting. Love.

Coffee is the one drink that goes equally well with first dates and break-ups. As the setting for a Taiwanese rom com, a coffeehouse is inviting, accessible, and not too expensive to render on-screen. Best of all, if the film is a hit, the fictional brand can be licensed to a brick-and-mortar establishment. Such was the case with Chiang Chin-lin’s Café. Waiting. Love. (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

You might think you do not like rom-coms, but CWL, will still charm you silly. It all starts with the relentlessly cute Siying, a college freshman, who is nearly flattened by bus, but is saved by a handsome mystery man. Naturally quite smitten with him, she takes a part-time job at the titular coffeehouse he frequently patronizes, usually with a bored looking bombshell. Much to her frustration, Siying inadvertently catches the eye of A-Tuo, a seven-year senior, who has developed a scandalous reputation due to all the outrageous bets he has lost. He will soon be liberated from the roller-skates and bikini that have made him such a sight on campus, but he must still carry around a well preserved head of cabbage.

Adapting his own novel for the screen, Giddens Ko assembles an eccentric cast of dozens, including Brother Bao, a former actor known for gangster movies who now mediates mob disputes, Siying’s roommate A Zhu, who aspires to join the Iron Head Kung Fu club (which is exactly what you suspect it is), and A Bu-si, the sardonic barista who once dated A-Tuo, before coming out of the closet. In addition, there are frequent flashbacks, generous helpings of magical realism, and demitasse cup after demitasse cup of delicious looking coffee confections.

Evidently, Taiwan is the place to go for romantic comedies. Like Hou Chi-jan’s When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep, CWL notches all the rom-com boxes, but it is wildly inventive visually and its narrative is considerably more sophisticated than the boy-meets-girl-botches-it-up-and-then-patches-things-up Hollywood formula.

CWL also boasts an infrequent screen appearance from the technically-still-retired-unless-she-feels-like-making-a-film Vivian Chow, who is absolutely smoldering and heartbreaking as the café proprietress. She is also perfectly matched by Yuan Chen as her younger self in flashbacks. As our POV character, Siying, Vivian Sung is enormously earnest and expressive. Happily, there is nothing shticky or clichéd about Megan Lai’s turn as the acerbic and reserved A Bu-si. In contrast, Bruce Lu-si Bu relentlessly tries to endear himself to the audience, much like a lovesick puppy, but his A-Tuo probably works better for the women in the audience.

CWL is propelled by a goofy sense of humor and a highly caffeinated energy level, but when Chiang and Chow lower the emotional boom, you will find yourself blubbering like a baby. Maybe the most satisfying “pure” romantic comedy since Hou’s Sheep, Café. Waiting. Love. is highly recommended for romantics and sentimental java drinkers when it screens this Thursday (7/9) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.