Sunday, April 17, 2016

New York New York

Sort of ironic: Movie lovers spent a couple days going absolutely bonkers last week after the head of AMC Theaters floated the idea that they might consider allowing texting under certain circumstances, leading to a quick backtrack with a message that this was definitely off the table.

He says that, but I saw a movie at an AMC Theater on Friday night, and even sitting in the second row, there were a bunch of five-inch screens lit up in front of me and in the corner of my eyes, which means they were probably much more visible to the rest of the theater. Saying you're not going to allow this sort of thing means very little, AMC (and other theaters that aren't the Somerville) if you're not going to actually do anything about it.

Surprisingly decent movie, considering that I wasn't hugely enthusiastic about it, almost going in on the basis of seeing Chinese movies by default. One thing that I thought about on the way out, though, was that it effectively functions as the origin story for every Asian ice queen aide-de-camp that showed up in a 1990s crime movie. I wonder how intentional that was.

New York New York (2016)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 April 2016 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

I wasn't really looking forward to New York New York; the trailer made it look like yet another nostalgic Chinese romance, and not a particularly involving one. And yet, once it gets past its opening flash-forward, maybe even before, it gets unexpectedly interesting: The filmmakers are going for a Wong Kar-wai-style melancholy, and while not up to that level of skill, they've sized upon a story that may intrigue audiences on both sides of the Pacific.

Here, "New York New York" refers not only to the American city but a nightclub in Shangai near the Gordon Hotel, where Lu Tu (Ethan Juan Jing-tien) is a concierge, promoted to captain at a young age and something of a mentor to "little brother" Kun (William Yang Xu-wen). Lu Tu takes a shine to tour guide Ruan Yujuan (Du Juan), a poor beauty whose mother is setting up introductions to increasingly distasteful men. But Shanghai is where China's increasing engagement with the West is being felt first in 1993, and Chinese-American guest Mr. Mi (Michael Miu Kiu-wai) is pitching a "Shanghai Grand Hotel" in Manhattan. He has 200 visas for potential staff, and wants Lu Tu. Unlike most of his colleagues, including "Juan", Lu Tu has no desire to go to New York, but might be willing to recruit for Mi.

If this film is any one thing before anything else, it is a love story, but a rather understated one where the audience watches two fairly reticent characters grow fonder of each other without ever having the no-doubt moment. Juan is practical; she knows her looks are a valuable commodity even if trading on them is not how she wants to live. Lu Tu is described as a player but has a certain rigid honesty to him. Theirs is never an all-consuming love, and in some ways that makes watching it play out on the actors' faces more intriguing: Du Juan spends a lot of time showing Juan as chafing at the idea of owing men or being defined by how she might be tied to them even as she plots a path through that minefield, implying hardness but not necessarily needing separate moments to imply that it's a shell (though the moments where the audience does get to see her cheerful or vulnerable go a long way). Ethan Juan, meanwhile, lets a fair amount of ego into Lu Tu's charm; it's not a surprise when he gets jealous, even if the actor does keep the audience inclined to like the guy.

It's not just a love story, of course; to say that New York New York takes place against the background of people vying for new opportunities is denying how central that is to many of the characters. The movie puts most of its focus on Lu Tu, aligning itself with his vision of New York as a false dream that mainly returns boxes of ashes. Writers Ha Chi-chao and Lu Nei elaborate on his individual reasons for feeling this way, and director Luo Dong does a nice job of balancing this personal motivation with the larger truth. Still, it's not difficult to empathize with Juan and the many others who want to do more than slowly climb the local ladder; Michael Miu's Mr. Mi is tempting, Cecilia Yip's Ms. Jin is formidable, and even minor characters like Ms. Jin's snotty assistant played by Isabelle Huang offer an interesting look at people feeling the squeeze.

Full review on EFC.

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