Saturday, July 06, 2013

NYAFF ’13: When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep

So far, American teens have largely been spared the joys of cram school.  In Taiwan, they are a fact of life for those facing the highly competitive university entrance tests.  It does not leave students much time for romance, but there just might be something cooking between two young back office workers.  Modern love is decidedly confused in Hou Chi-jan’s When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep (trailer here), which screens today during the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.

After leaving a “back soon” sticky note on his sleeping forehead, Tung’s girlfriend walked out of his life and has yet to return.  Maybe it was because he dressed too much like “Where’s Waldo.” Emerging from a heartsick tailspin, the dopey kid takes a job at a copy shop in the Nanyang cram school district, because he can do the work on autopilot and live in the loft above the store.  Making deliveries to the Bisheng School, Tung meets the cute but artistically frustrated Yang, who draws little sheep cartoons on the bottom of the school’s test papers.  One day, he responds with his own big bad wolf character and a doodle flirtation starts to blossom, much to the amusement of the student body.

Wolf is compulsively sweet, but it has tons more style than your average rom-com.  Hou integrates little animated vignettes of the sheep and wolf, as well as some completely fresh and original sight gags.  It sometimes feels a bit prone to ADD, but Hou eventually loops every rangy subplot back into his main narrative quite cleverly.  Despite its frothy tone, Wolf has some rather smart stuff to it, particularly the manner it presents the pseudo-courtship between Tung and Yang.  It is a two-tiered relationship, playful on paper but much more reserved in person, which really rings true.

As Tung, Kai Ko is appropriately sad-eyed and sensitive, while Chien Man-shu gives refreshing depth to the more philosophical Yang.  Wolf is also loaded with colorful supporting players, most notably including Lin Ching-tai (the star of Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale), playing off his real life persona as a former Presbyterian minister with his turn as a priest moonlighting as a noodle-cart vendor, wisdom dispenser, and general jack-of-all-trades.

Energetic and winning, Wolf is the sort of rom-com where fate is not content to merely take a hand, but will go so far as to smack characters alongside the head and yell “go after her, you schmuck.”  If that is manipulative at times, Hou nicely compensates with the originality of his execution.  Highly recommended for anyone who appreciates a good date movie, When a Wolf Loves a Sheep screens today (7/6) and Tuesday afternoon (7/9) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.  Those who go should stay through the final credits for several reasons, including the attendance of director and festival special guest Hou Chi-jan.