China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 99 mins.
Director: Dai Wei 戴玮.
Return of Hong Kong actress Zhu Yin [Athena Chu] to the big screen is a mixed bag of ingredients.
Chongqing municipality, central China, the present day. The middle-aged Lu Jianguo (Wang Zhifei) recently lost his job but has been secretly working as a taxi driver, watching the world go by. Every evening he changes back into a suit and pretends to his wife, Ye Lan (Zhu Yin), that he’s been at the office. After a row with their self-obsessed teenage son Lu Xiaofei (Xia Zhiyuan) and then with Ye Lan – who says she already knows he lost his job and now wants a divorce – Lu Jianguo storms out of the house, wandering the streets. He remembers how 20 years ago, at a dance academy where they were both students, he (Du Tianhao) and Ye Lan (Chen Muye) fell in love, with her giving up her place on an international dance team when he injured himself. At exactly midnight, he boards a monorail train and then loses consciousness: when he wakes up next morning, it’s still the present but he’s now 20 years younger (Du Tianhao). He manages to convince an old friend, Wang (Tai Zhiyuan), that he’s really Lu Jianguo. When Wang comments on how much he resembles his own nephew Lu Damin, he texts his wife, telling her he’s gone to the countryside but to make welcome his nephew in his absence. As “Lu Damin”, he attends Ye Lan’s class at a dance academy, which is also attended by Lu Xiaofei. He finds, however, that his old rival from his youth, Xiao Feng (Huang Zheng), is on a jury to award two students an overseas scholarship, and is using the opportunity to cosy up to Ye Lan. Without telling him who he really is, “Lu Damin” manages to bond with Lu Xiaofei, and gets a waiter job in a nightclub thanks to Lu Xiaofei’s friend Youyou (Wang Jianing), a dancer who leads her own troupe there. When Youyou offers “Lu Damin” a place in her troupe, and pays him for performing, Ye Lan starts to suspect that Lu Jianguo is still in the city and is funding his nephew. She also can’t understand why “Lu Damin” reminds her so much of her husband.
A middle-aged husband yearns for a second chance at life in Once Again 二次初恋, an “age-travel” rather than time-travel light comedy in which the protagonist has 20 years wiped off but the setting remains the present. With a plot pitched somewhere between Miss Granny 重返20岁 (2015) and Suddenly Seventeen 28岁未成年 (2016), but from a male perspective, it’s a lightly entertaining but rather muddled comedy-romance that can’t make up its mind whether it’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy, May-Sep love story or urban-dance youth musical. Sold as a return to the big screen by Hong Kong actress Zhu Yin 朱茵 [Athena Chu] – after a six-year absence occasioned by marriage and motherhood – it reaped a very mild RMB26 million at the Mainland box office.
Now 45, Zhu is hardly among the top rank of Hong Kong stars but has a loyal following from her large variety of roles during the 1990s. Those ranged from a sexy fairy in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey 西游记 (1995) to a feisty policewoman in Raped by an Angel 2: The Uniform Fan 强奸2 制服诱惑 (1998), symbolising a decade in which she seemed up for anything and looked pretty damn hot while doing it. As her last big-screen part was in the truly awful Mainland crime comedy Scary Market 嘿•店 (2011) – about a crew shooting a zombie movie in a supermarket at night – it’s good to see her back in something more worthy of her image.
However, though Zhu is all over the film’s posters, which appear to sell it as the story of a middle-aged woman falling in love again, it’s actually about nothing of the sort. The main protagonist is played by relative newcomer Du Tianhao 杜天皓, 23, a metrosexual-looking Taiwan actor with a Mainland career (Forever Young 2015 栀子花开2015, 2015; Mates 睡在我上铺的兄弟, 2016) whose previous film just happened to be a May-Sep rom-com, Special Encounter 美容针 (2017). In Once Again he has a similar role as a middle-aged woman’s focus of attention – the youthful reincarnation of her husband who’s magically become 20 again and stays at the family home pretending to be his own nephew.
Though there are some frissons between the wife (Zhu) and the “nephew” (Du) – as he reminds her so much of her husband, especially when they were both dance students – the script doesn’t make that thread the main event: jostling for equal time in the screenplay are the stories of the wife being pursued by an old admirer, her teenage son winning a dance competition (coincidentally judged by said admirer), and the “nephew” joining an urban-dance group run by an ambitious (and very hot) dancer whom the teenage son also fancies. The person getting the “second chance” is more the husband than the wife and, though top-billed, Zhu is more in a subsidiary role to Du.
That’s half the problem with the film, which wants to be a bit of everything and, with its veering tone, feels like it’s been put together by a committee of writers and script planners (six in all, including Gui Dongming 桂东鸣 who worked on comedy romance Revenge for Love 疯岳撬佳人, 2017). With a ballet background threading through all the characters’ lives, and with flashbacks to when they all met as students, it’s more of a dance movie than anything else, with well-staged sequences (especially the urban-dance ones) that smoothly use doubles for the leads and work both as standalone numbers and as expressions of characters’ feelings.
The best scenes, however, are at the start, with TV veteran Wang Zhifei 王志飞, 52, relaxedly guesting as the middle-aged husband and Zhu showing her gift for comedy in early scenes with Du. Thereafter, the film gradually becomes more conventional, with the blank-faced Du not having much chemistry with anyone. Among the rest of the cast, the youngsters score well: Xia Zhiyuan 夏志远 makes a bright presence as the teenage son, Chongqing-born pop singer/musician Chen Muye 陈牧耶, 27, ditto in flashbacks as the wife when a dance student, and Wang Jianing 王嘉宁, 24, suitably sultry as the ambitious night-club dancer.
Director Dai Wei 戴玮, who has the picturesque Tibet-set dramas Ganglamedo 冈拉梅朵 (2008) and Once upon a Time in Tibet 西藏往事 (2011) under her belt, directs okay but with more visual than emotional feeling. Set and shot in Chongqing, central China, the film refreshingly evokes the city in a much lighter way than is usual on the big screen.
Presented by Yuehua Pictures (CN), Tencent Penguin Pictures (Shanghai) (CN), Bravo Music (CN).
Script: Gui Dongming, Bu Xiaofeng, Zhang Xiaole, Liu Qiuye. Script planning: Zhang Disha, Zhang Xiaole, Yang Zini. Photography: Miao Jianhui, Lv Zhaoyi. Editing: Jiang Yong. Music: Wang Zihe, Huang Pide. Art direction: Zhang Lili. Sound: Hu Liang. Special effects: Zhang Zheng. Visual effects: Qiu Hongxu.
Cast: Zhu Yin [Athena Chu] (Ye Lan), Du Tianhao (young Lu Jianguo/”Lu Damin”), Huang Zheng (Xiao Feng), Tai Zhiyuan (Wang), Xia Zhiyuan (Lu Xiaofei), Wang Jianing (Youyou/Yoyo), Chen Muye (young Ye Lan), Wang Zhifei (Lu Jianguo), Sun Yangyang (young Wang).
Release: China, 31 Aug 2017.