NYAFF Short Reviews: Hong Kong Panorama Films

Soul Mate

Director: Derek Tsang
Cast: Dongyu Zhou, Sandra Ma, and Toby Lee
North American premiere: September 23, 2016

At the core of Soul Mate is the story of free-spirited Ansheng (Dongyu Zhou) and conservative homebody July (Sichun Ma), two women who could have been soulmates if fate–and a man–hadn’t separated them. We meet July and Ansheng as children, and the girls’ friendship is infused with a less-than-platonic curiosity: they hold hands, shyly show each other their breasts, and sneak out at night to a grubby hideout where they cuddle on a mattress. But director Derek Tsang is less interested in showing us a possible queer romance and more in exploring the ways in which these women break apart and live increasingly divergent–and pain-filled–lives.

As a teen, Ansheng realizes she’s in love with July’s boyfriend, the straight-laced Jiaming (Toby Lee); July, in turn, sees the way Jiaming’s gaze lingers on Ansheng. With the girls’ feelings for each other tangled up in it all, it’s a love triangle in the truest sense, one that causes agony for all involved. Tsang holds back from telling us who’s more in the right, and he ultimately portrays all parties involved with sincere compassion. But the tables feel uneven, and between the two girls, it’s clear that one of them holds more power over the other. It’s up to the viewer to decide if the surprising third act of the film is a well-deserved conclusion to this tragedy.

So much goes unspoken in Soul Mate, and much of the film hinges on the emotional performances by Zhou and Ma. Zhou plays Ansheng with incredible deftness: she’s spunky and brave even in the face of hardship, but in her eyes you see her desperate need for acceptance and love. She is, ultimately, shamed by her feelings for Jiaming, as well as her hinted at unspoken feelings for July. Ma is equally as skilled as July, whose own self-doubt and jealousy of the beautiful, free-wheeling Ansheng leads her to cut Ansheng deeper and deeper for her own comfort.

The ending is the final gut punch to this poignant tale, and it throws in an Atonement-like twist that feels a bit cheap in its delivery. An undeniably gorgeous, sad film, but one that made me ultimately long for the story where Jiaming, while a sweet, well-meaning boy, never disrupted their lives.

This Is Not What I Expected

Director: Derek Hui
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Dongyu Zhou, Yi-zhou Sun, and Ming Xi
North American Premiere: May 5, 2017

At its best, This Is Not What I Expected is a slapstick rom-com about a scrappy female chef who constantly exceeds the expectations of the men around her. Gu Sheng-Nan (Dongyu Zhou) is an underpaid sous chef at the Rosebud Hotel, and she dreams of one day becoming head chef, allowing her the creative control she longs for. When priggish foodie billionaire Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) shows up to survey the Rosebud for potential acquisition, he’s immediately unimpressed with the Rosebud head chef’s offerings. But a surprise dish from Gu makes him reconsider the hotel’s potential, and so begins a flirtation expressed mainly through food and compliments to the chef.

Cinematographers Jing-Pin Yu and Xiaoshi Zhao capture the art of cooking in incredible detail, and the closeups make you feel like you’re watching an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. The dishes that Gu whips up are genuinely clever and beautiful, and seeing her answer every challenge that Lu sends her way is delightful. At one point he sends down a room service request that only says “egg,” and what follows is a shockingly delicious montage of every gourmet egg dish imaginable. Gu is a bit clumsy and a bit daft, but damn can she cook.

The scenes of Gu in the kitchen are compelling to watch, so it’s too bad that the actual romance plot doesn’t reach the same heights. Zhou and Kaneshiro definitely have enough chemistry in the film. But Lu is a rude and difficult man to please, and even though he changes a bit, one can’t help but feel that Gu still deserves better. Their relationship is one where Lu often ends up insulting and imposing on her with zero apologies, and Gu is never able to overcome the power dynamic that always occurs when the romance involves a rich man and a poor woman. Their serendipitous meetups often stretch credulity, and the one main source of drama introduced late in the film–another female chef–just feels silly and contrived.

In the end, the focus shifts from Gu’s dreams and her burgeoning career onto a jealous spat between two women fighting over who gets to care for this full grown man. A cute, charming film that unfortunately leaves Gu in the lurch by the end of it.

Gretchen Smail

Gretchen Smail

Part time Bay Area journalist, full time loungewear enthusiast