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Review: This Is Not What I Expected (2017)

This Is Not What I Expected

喜欢你

Hong Kong/China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 106 mins.

Director: Xu Hongyu 许宏宇 [Derek Hui].

Rating: 7/10.

Odd-couple foodie rom-com is all in the lead performances, especially actress Zhou Dongyu’s.

STORY

Shanghai, the present day. Lu Jin (Kaneshiro Takeshi), the solitary, super-control-freak, billionaire CEO of property acquisition company VN Group, first meets Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu) when she is scraping some graffiti on the bonnet of what she thinks is the car of the two-timing boyfriend of her best friend Xu Xiaodi (Xi Mengyao). Unfortunately, Gu Shengnan is on the car park’s wrong floor and the vehicle belongs to Lu Jin. He orders her to contact his assistant Xiaomeng (Sun Yizhou) so it can be repaired immediately, or else. Unknown to Lu Jin, Gu Shengnan is sous-chef at the Rosebud Hotel, where she has just been dumped by her boyfriend, the hotel’s oily general manager Cheng Ziqian (Yang Youning). The Rosebud is currently in Lu Jin’s sights and, after visiting the property, he is about to reject it when Gu Shengnan saves the day by cooking a delicious bowl of Witch Noodle Soup 女巫汤意面. From the taste, Lu Jin, who is an obsessive food connoisseur, deduces the chef is a woman, but he shows no interest in meeting her. Instead, he stays in the hotel just to eat her food. That night, he again meets Gu Shengnan, who is drunk on the roof nearby, and she ends up in his room, causing a misunderstanding that temporarily lands him in the local police station. The two keep bumping into each other over the next few days, with Gu Shengnan annoying Lu Jin so much that he makes her wear an electronic tagging device to warn him of her proximity. Meanwhile, he continues to relish the food she cooks at the hotel. Only when she sees Lu Jin being interviewed one day does Gu Shengnan realise who he is – the guest in Room 1123. Soon afterwards, he also realises who she is, and they meet and talk food. Despite being nagged by his father (Zhang Guozhu) to come to Switzerland, and not spend so long on an unpromising property like the Rosebud, Lu Jin stays on in Shanghai, and goes round to Gu Shengnan’s flat for meals when she is on sick leave. Eventually, he spends so much time there that he effectively moves in.

REVIEW

An odd-couple foodie rom-com that’s all in the lead performances, This Is Not What I Expected 喜欢你 marks an okay directing debut by Hong Kong editor Xu Hongyu 许宏宇 [Derek Hui], whose inherent sense of pacing and dramatic balance triumphs over a fluffy script that doesn’t have much of either. Aside from the smooth technical package, it’s largely thanks to Mainland actress Zhou Dongyu 周冬雨 and her Taiwan co-star Kaneshiro Takeshi 金城武 that Expected goes the distance. Thanks to Zhou’s ability (like the younger Shu Qi 舒淇) to portray a seemingly natural sense of fun beyond sheer kookiness, the movie just about scrapes a 7/10.

In the past decade, Hui, 34, has worked on some two dozen productions on both sides of the border, mostly produced or directed by Hong Kong’s Chen Kexin 陈可辛 [Peter Chan] but also for other film-makers like Zhang Yang 张扬 (Driverless 无人驾驶, 2010), Chen Kaige 陈凯歌 (Sacrifice 赵氏孤儿, 2010), Zhao Baogang 赵宝刚 (One Step Away 触不可及, 2014), Wen Zhang 文章 (When Larry Met Mary 陆垚知马俐, 2016) and Er Dongsheng 尔冬升 [Derek Yee] (Sword Master 三少爷的剑, 2016). Produced under the banner of Chen Kexin’s We Pictures 我们制作, with Mainland money, Expected sees him teaming up again with several of the team behind We’s last successful outing, SoulMate 七月与安生 (2016) – Chen’s fellow Hong Kong producer Xu Yuezhen 许月珍 [JoJo Hui], Taiwan d.p. Yu Jingping 余静萍, Hong Kong stylist Wu Lilu 吴里璐 [Dora Ng], and actress Zhou.

Foodie rom-coms have long been popular in East Asia; and in the Mainland, especially in fashion-conscious Shanghai, they also hit the extra demographic of a upwardly mobile middle class that includes fine food in its list of new snobberies. (Mainland box office has been a solid RMB200 million-plus.) On a film-making level, they’ve always provided plenty of metaphors for sex – something that Expected mines to the full. This is a rom-com in which the two principals don’t even touch until the final scene (and even then, very chastely): their romance is played out entirely on a culinary level, with even one party’s “infidelity” seen in professional rather than sexual terms.

Aside from that, the script by Xu Yimeng 许伊萌 and Li Yuan 李媛 – both women coming from the SoulMate writing team – follows the odd-couple formula to the letter. He’s tall, rich, super-control-freaky and spotless; she’s short, poor-ish, spontaneous and untidy. Where he’s immaculately tailored, she looks like she uses charity shops; where he’s a germaphobe, she has a cute-ugly dog in her flat. What unites them is a love of food – and, as the viewer comes to realise, their social awkardness and basic loneliness, the latter expressed by each in a different way.

During the first half the script pushes almost to breaking point the idea of both not realising who the other is (and not meeting face to face with that full knowledge) – a kind of lengthy meet-cute interruptus. Only the production values, fabulous-looking food and the two stars’ charisma keep the unlikely idea from seeming ridiculous. The second half – which follows culinary versions of “co-habitation”, “infidelity”, “betrayal” and “reunion” – is refreshed by a twist at the 70-minute point and by a finale that suggests the leads’ relationship could maybe, possibly, perhaps slip over into actual human companionship. It’s all quite touching, in a very cute way.

No one can do gamine charm and tomboyish enthusiasm quite like Zhou, and while rapidly developing as an actress (Under the Hawthorn Tree 山楂树之恋, 2010; The Palace 宫  锁沉香, 2013; SoulMate) she’s also continued to prove – as here – that she can imbue generic material with a certain freshness (My Old Classmate 同桌的妳, 2014; Never Said Goodbye 谎言西西里, 2016). The film hardly bothers to background her character’s cooking skills, apart from showing lots of books in her flat, but Zhou still convinces as a somewhat beatnik-y sous-chef with a magic touch. More openly obsessive, Kaneshiro’s CEO often looks stiff in his over-pressed clothes, as well as a ridiculous moustache and glasses; but the film cleverly uses the fact that audiences know Kaneshiro himself has an unconventional side, thus creating common ground between the two leads. The age gap between Kaneshiro, 43, and Zhou, 25, was criticised at the time by the original novel’s fans, especially as Zhou still looks hardly out of her teens; but starpower, and lots of technique, makes their odd-coupledom work.

Other roles are minimal, with Taiwan actors scoring best. Yang Youning 杨祐宁 is good as the hotel’s oily manager and the treacherous ex of Zhou’s character; actress/model Lin Zhiling 林志玲 is also surprisingly good in a piece of casting that exploits her celebrity status and middle age; and veteran Zhang Guozhu 张国柱 brings the necessary heft to a late-on scene that helps explain the anal quality of Kaneshiro’s character. Mainland TV actor Sun Yizhou 孙艺洲 and Shanghai model Xi Mengyao 奚梦瑶 are stuck with underwritten characters in a subsidiary romance.

The film is the first big-screen adaptation of a work by pseudonymous author Lan Baise 蓝白色, in this case her 2014 novel Finally I Get You 终于等到你 (see left), first published on the internet the previous year as 男人使用手册 (literally, “A Handbook for the Use of Men”). Two of her earlier novels, 无爱承欢 and 步步错, have been adapted into TV dramas (Loving, Never Forgetting 恋恋不忘, 2014; Be with You 不得不爱, 2017). The production title for Expected was 男人手册 (“A Handbook for Men”), echoing the title of the original web novel. In contrast to the clumsy English title, the film’s Chinese one simply means “Liking You”.

CREDITS

Presented by Phoenix Entertainment (CN), Alibaba Pictures (CN), JQ Pictures (CN), Dream Sky Entertainment (CN), Huaxia Film Distribution (CN), We Pictures (HK). Produced by We Pictures (HK).

Script: Xu Yimeng, Li Yuan. Photography: Yu Jingping, Zhao Xiaoshi. Editing: Xu Hongyu [Derek Hui], Tan Xiangyuan, Zhou Xiaolin. Music: Chen Guangrong [Comfort Chan], Feng Tingzheng, Lei Boxi. Art direction: Lu Wenhua. Styling: Wu Lilu [Dora Ng]. Sound: Wang Danrong, Zhu Yanfeng. Visual effects: Jin Hongkun, Weng Guoxian, Chen Dikai.

Cast: Kaneshiro Takeshi (Lu Jin), Zhou Dongyu (Gu Shengnan), Sun Yizhou (Meng Xinjie, Lu Jin’s assistant), Xi Mengyao (Xu Zhaodi, Gu Shengnan’s best friend), Zhang Guozhu (Lu Jin’s father), Yang Youning (Cheng Ziqian, hotel manager), Lin Zhiling (Lu Jin’s personal chef), Gao Xiaosong (Gao), Zhao Yingjun (policeman), Hai Tong (bad chef).

Premiere: Beijing Film Festival, 8 Apr 2017.

Release: Hong Kong, 4 May 2017; China, 27 Apr 2017.