I usually like screwball comedies. They're the subgenre of romantic comedy where the characters are all nuts or eccentric and the situations are absurd and farcical, which serves as the perfect allegory for falling in love. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, Hollywood made a lot of them brilliantly. But very few are made now because they're hard to write, and, with a few exceptions, the homogenized nature of studio movies now doesn't really do them justice. Korea and, to some extent, China have picked up the baton and made the genre a mainstay in their movie industry.
This is Not What I Expected is a Chinese combination of screwball comedy and Chinese romantic comedy, made by Hong Kong filmmakers. It's a deliberately calculated and concocted product designed for box office success: a high concept pitch, glossy production values and glamourous locations to feed fantasies of high living.
Taiwanese-Japanese star Takeshi Kaneshiro plays Lu Jin, a control freak millionaire who goes around buying up hotels around the world for his father's company. He's also a serious foodie, and falls in love with the dishes made by lady chef Gu Sheng Nan, played by Zhou Dong Yu, who works at the Western Shanghai hotel he's assessing for an acquisition. What he doesn't know is that very chef is actually the ditzy chick he keeps running into whose childish impulsiveness keeps landing him in hot water. This includes her scratching up his car by mistake when she was trying to vandalise a two-timing boyfriend's car, a drunken escapade that results in him stuffing her in a suitcase and getting arrested, and an incident involving a poked beehive. He falls in love with her cooking, and when he discovers who she really is, that's when the love-hate-love story really begins.
But there's a problem with a movie like this deciding to stop the parts where the characters are hilariously making each other's lives hell and settle down to having them fall in love. The non-screwball romantic comedy parts are incredibly generic and boring, with all the mushiness and mooning, then the expected obstacle driving them apart drops in like clockwork — because genre conventions expect these things to happen when they do. Then there's the third act climax, where they come to their senses and decide to get back together for a happy ever after.
There are other issues with this movie, too. When you think about it, these two people really should not be together. Lu Jin is a horrible bastard, and no amount of movie star charisma Kaneshiro brings to his performance can cover up what a loathsome capitalist shit the character is. Zhou Dong Yu might overplay the goofy child-like pixie dream girl a bit, depending on your tolerance for that kind of character. There's also the economic and class inequality between them, since he's a tycoon who has the power to fire her and destroy her life, resulting in an awful undertone of power and exploitation in their relationship that the script can never truly gloss over. It still doesn't really fly in the end when he runs back to her. They end up together only because the script demands they do.
But putting aside whether this movie is good or bad, it's more interesting to look at what it shows, consciously or not. The high culture, aspirational, social climbing glamour of the Western hotel and Shanghai setting reveal the current preoccupations of China's emerging middle classes and super rich. The way Lu Jin represents the new predatory capitalism as the new normal is also interesting.
Gu Sheng Nan's genius at creating hybrid gourmet dishes melding Western and Eastern ingredients is a metaphor for the Chinese desire for Western sophistication, just as much as she represents the new service industry of post-Communist China. The whole veneer of luxury, upmarket brands, and conspicuous consumption is a far cry from the ethos of the old Communist way of thinking. I imagine a lot of old-school socialists choking on their porridge or spinning in their graves at the prospect of this movie. This is, in the end, the New China and the New Chinese Cinema, where it's all about the glamour, escapism and box office.
This movie wasn't as fun as I hoped, but writing about it turned out to be more fun than I expected.
This is Not What I Expected has already screened at the NYAFF, but will come to Netflix later in the year.
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