Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Life – real life – doesn’t have a soundtrack. People don’t see things through calibrated camera lenses or with the benefit of great lighting.
Kismet doesn’t happen just like that. And romantics at heart can’t all exist in sweet Paris, the stereotypical city of l’amour that epitomises the exotic, far-away quality of romance portrayed in the cinema.
Director Arvin Chen’s debut feature, a film with that special ability to build up and grow on you as you watch it, challenges the various notions of a romantic-comedy film set in the seemingly unromantic city of his native Taiwan.
That it succeeds in giving us a stake in the budding relationship of an unassuming bookstore clerk (Amber Kuo) and a rather dull, but pleasant, directionless youth (Jack Yao) is a real credit to Chen and his cast and crew.
That the film manages to juggle multiple storylines and sets of characters, including a lovelorn cop and his faithful partner, as well as a number of small-time crooks trying for a big score at the expense of their semi-retired big boss and patron, pushes it over the top and sets this apart from its peers.
Au Revoir Taipei boasts legendary filmmaker Wim Wenders as executive producer, and that probably helped the film in its nascent stages. The finished film, however, owes its excellence to Chen’s deft hand, and a fine ensemble effort from the cast.
The protagonist, a young man named Kai (Yao) whose parents’ dumpling shop is a favourite of a local gangster (Frankie Kao), is dreaming of joining his girlfriend in Paris, even though the signs are that their relationship has run its course.
Kai lingers at a local bookstore to browse French language guides, where a mousy clerk, Susie (Kuo), accosts him and hints that she would like to see him socially, outside of the store.
He is unreceptive, for he envisions object of his affection and purpose of his hitherto unremarkable life in Paris, not Taipei (which Susie kind of represents) and isn’t able to see past his firmly-held romantic fantasy.
Initially, the film is deceptively casual. We are introduced to the players and their idiosyncrasies – the gangster, Brother Bao, loves soap operas, his minions sell real estate as their legitimate front – before the film starts to really take off.
Director Chen, inspired by the French New Wave, has written a tight, clever script that, through a series of events, all happening on one endless night, brings all the characters together in moments of escalating conflict and comic absurdity, out of which springs an unlikely romance.
Somehow, the un-Parisian sights of Taipei, including its convenience stores, eateries, and dodgy love motels, become the backdrop for a jaunty chase-and-fall-in-love tale.
Chen’s film is carried by its witty plot and stellar characterisation, coupled with a dedication to practically every character’s personal story. (Chen is even able to squeeze in a second romantic subplot involving a guileless pal of Kai’s, who gets kidnapped amid the film’s second-act shenanigans.)
Kao, a wildly famous singer-turned-actor of our parents’ generation, gives a finely nuanced performance as Bao, the philosophical gangster who tries to help Kai go to Paris, in exchange for smuggling a package that may contain precious, illicit cargo.
First-timers Yao and Kuo, a doe-eyed singer whose burgeoning popularity has been aided by this film’s home-grown success, work well together without falling into clichés or typical rom-com set-ups.
The appealing Kuo, in particular, has a real star quality; the camera loves her and her character, imbued with a beautiful spirit, becomes the emotional focal point for the film. This will not be her last film, nor her last starring role.
Honourable mention also goes to Lawrence Ko for making Hong, Bao’s ambitious and duplicitous nephew – a key catalyst in the film’s story – an eminently watchable and genuinely funny, tragic-comic villain.
Just as it attempts to, and succeeds at, painting Taipei as an unlikely city of love (amid crime), Au Revoir Taipei takes advantage of the element of relative anonymity and surprise and sneaks up on you.
In doing so, it plants the novel idea that for romantic hijinks, we’ll always have Taipei.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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