Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Say I Do to Me

Huh, just two weeks after the last Chinese movie about social media deception to arrive in Boston months after playing its native territory, but with only crappy showtimes. I half-wonder if someone at AMC's booking department looked at the surprisingly good turn-out for Post Truth that day and said, okay, let's try that again, even if Hong Kong movies generally don't do as well as mainland ones there.

The "Hong Kong movies" of it is what attracted me a little more; director Kiwi Chow Kwun-Wai was one of the filmmakers who made Ten Years back in 2015 and also Revolution of Our Times more recently, with the former causing the People's Republic to have a censorious meltdown, not just refusing to broadcast the Hong Kong Film Awards that year and then cutting away the next at another film one of the contributors directed. It's got Chapman To Man-Chat as presenter, one of the more unambiguously pro-democracy folks in the Hong Kong film scene, to the point where he's more or less blackballed (I've read he's working in Taiwan, but nothing that has made it into IMDB or the like; maybe he's doing theater). There are also a ton of logos in front of the film, and not knowing where the distributors stop and the production companies start, it seems entirely possible that this was produced in part by one of the two companies in Texas among those logos.

As you might expect, this has not been released in the People's Republic and probably won't be, although a little digging suggests Chow and some of his collaborators are no longer as radioactive as they might have been in the immediate wake of Ten Years. The amusing part of this is that it's a pretty darn innocuous movie; not getting anywhere close to something like The Sparring Partner in terms of commentary that might rub the PRC the wrong way.

It is a bit of a messy movie, but like with The Sparring Partner and a few other recent HK flicks that have made it here, it's exciting to see this younger generation of filmmakers emerging in the place after so many people seemed to have their eye on the mainland and the reduced backing available for strictly local productions seemed to center on established names. There are some growing pains, but this seems to be an exciting time for Hong Kong cinema.

Jatjan fanlai (Say I Do to Me)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2023 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run; DCP)

Say I Do to Me is far from the first youth-oriented movie that makes me wonder if I am too old to understand YouTube/streaming culture at all, and given that it's here to stay, it probably won't be the last. There's something kind of interesting in that, and maybe instructive: When you think of the great romantic comedies, they're often the works of old pros and increasingly feature middle-aged or senior citizen protagonists, but movies like this feature young characters in situations their parents don't really understand. It's messily current rather than sweetly nostalgic, and maybe that's better.

It opens introducing the idea of "sologamy", a sort of self-wedding or pledge to love oneself, before introducing Ping Cheung (Sabrina Ng Ping), a cute twenty-ish YouTuber planning her own. She's not alone in this project, though - she has an off-screen boyfriend, Dickson (Kelvin Chan Kin-Long), who works the camera and edits her videos - and they're seeking sponsors as well as views. Enter Charles Ko (Mixon Wong), the handsome heir to a local hotel chain looking for something to tie in to their "Be You" slogan; Lok Yee (Candy Lo Hau-Yam), a florist with OCD supported by husband Kenneth (Gregory Wong Chung-Yiu); and Daniel (Tong Hoo Yin), a Christian with a long-term crush on Ping, helping her find a venue.

Filmmaker Kiwi Chow Kwun-Wai and co-writers Frankie Chung Wang-Kit & Isis Tso Yin-Sin set up a strong romantic comedy premise in the opening stretch - as soon as Ping meets Charles, there's an immediate spark even before his assistant Kitty (J Lou) all but uses the words "I've always loved you, stupid" - but they want to do more, winding up with a lot more characters than they need and kind of fuzzy ideas about what self-confidence and authenticity mean in their situations. What could be a fast-paced farce or increasingly complicated love triangle bogs down and loses track of its destination. The film also kind of grinds to a halt with a long flashback that explains a lot of the plot but doesn't flesh out the characters.

And yet, Sabrina Ng Ping is still kind of terrific, a manic pixie dream girl with her own inner life who may be using "cute" to shield herself from heavier things and is just getting a handle on how separate but intertwined her online persona and true self is, especially when you dig into her relationship with a mother (Isabel Chan Yat-Ning) who is apparently a star of some sort herself has always made Ping call her "Big Sis". Ping is charming and sweet and kind of a wrecking ball because she doesn't necessarily have that sense of when to be honest and when to put up artifice, and Ng handles all that pretty well for someone plucked off the same sort of streams as her character. She doesn't really have a lot of people working on the same level - Candy Lo Hau-Yam and Gregory Wong Chung-Yiu are nice as Yee & Kenneth, but more interesting together than as sort of a side story in Ping's orbit, and the evasive heart-to-heart with Isabel Chan Yat-Ning's immature mother/big-sis Stephanie is good enough to make one want that relationship closer to the center of the movie. None of the guys meant to be romantic interests really seem like full people, though Mixon Wong is at least given something to work with as Charles, while Chan Kin-Long and Tong Hoo Yin are just okay as Dickson and Daniel.

It's odd that Kiwi Chow's last credit was the Hong Kong protest documentary Revolution of Our Times - both because he and his anonymous collaborators were often able to piece together something thrilling and as kinetic as any Hong Kong action movie out of available footage and because he seems to push for the anti-gritty here: The whole film is bright colors, cheerful (literal) clowning around, and lots of scenes taking place in fancy hotel suites or a one of those studio apartments with room for a camera to move around despite it being stuffed with pop culture knick knacks that have become a bit of a cliché in Hong Kong comedies of late, and that's well and good. It's just strange that Chow often kind of muffs telling the story through people doing things - there's a sequence with Dickson following Ping's first meeting with Charles via a drone that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and by the time characters are actually throwing cakes at each other, it feels like we're just supposed to laugh at how they've actually gone for a cake fight most of the time rather than blocking and staging the slapstick to really work.

I get it, in a way; a lot of folks involved here have been protesting and sounding alarms and both want and deserve to get their silly sides out. And for the most part, this is a fun ensemble and an agreeably bright, whimsical take on young Hong Kongers, and both the film's big ideas and romcom instincts are solid. Those two elements are often working at cross purposes, though, instead of building each other up, and it sure feels like it could have been much better.

No comments: