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HONG KONG — At one point in Clara Law’s latest film, one of the characters says to another, “Perhaps this world is not meant to be comprehended.” That could be said of “Like a Dream,” a globe-trotting romantic drama that tries to be several things at once, never quite makes a concrete decision as to where to focus, and so ends up a disjointed and ill-defined curiosity more than a film.
Law is a film festival favorite, but as a filmmaker she runs hot — “Floating Life” — and cold — “The Goddess of 1967.” “Dream” is a troublesome offering that teeters on the precipice of mainstream cinema: it’s bilingual and stars one of Hong Kong’s more audience-friendly actors but the overall tone borders on aggressively arty. “Dream” is likely to stir up festival attention and it could see limited release on the art house circuit in both Asia and abroad based on Law’s reputation. Broader exposure than that, however, is a long shot.
Surly computer geek Max (Daniel Wu) has a recurring dream in which he and a mysterious woman (Yolanda Yuan) attempt to recreate the events of her boyfriend’s suicide. In the waking world, Max becomes convinced she actually exists while on a business trip to Shanghai when he accidentally picks up some phototomat pictures whose subject is dream girl’s doppelganger. He enlists the help of yet another look-alike, a “country bumpkin” (also Yuan) to find her and before you know it he’s on his way back to continue the hunt. As it turns out there’s a kernel of truth in his dreams, and after a great deal of running through alleys and cryptic quasi-wooing by the woman, everyone’s skeletons come out of the proverbial closets.
“Dream” is by no means inept filmmaking. It is impeccably composed and elegantly photographed. But the tangle of themes that are raised and dropped make it a bit of a headscratcher. Is the film an exploration of identity, of Chinese-ness? The film begins with Max burying his dead cat, the only tangible connection he has to his family. So is it an examination of how we deal with trauma? A deconstruction of the fuzzy line between fantasy and reality? The answer is all of the above, but never enough of any one to form a cohesive whole.
By jumping between New York, Taipei and Shanghai in various planes of reality, Law does manage to convey the characters’ disbelief, frustration and uncertainty. But the film goes off track by muddling the roots of Max’s obsession and the woman’s motivations for helping him. Enigmatic characters are one thing; foolish or baffling ones are quite another. Max simply sounds weird when he explains his goals and he behaves like a stalker. No amount of whimsy will take the taint off his actions. The “bumpkin” fumbles around like a village idiot and less country girl in the big city. When the revelations finally unfold — after a glacial buildup — they come across as more soap opera contrived than clarifying.
As a film that relies on empathizing with its characters, its central performances lack the emotional heft demanded for that connection. The histrionics of the dream couple, wandering as they do through a chillingly blue and fantastically barren Taipei works on an unreal level, however when the same behavior is applied to the film’s real world the performances creak under the weight of the narrative’s nonsense and the tendency for the characters to grate on the nerves. It doesn’t take long for Yuan to slip into overwrought territory, while Wu stands around looking perplexed and as if he’s trying to have a hard time communicating. The less said about the lone supporting characters — Max’s New York colleagues — the better. When “Dream” finally winds down with its closing dance, any dreamlike qualities have been overwhelmed by questions of logic, which is the kiss of death for a film reliant on anything but.
Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival (opening night)
Sales: Distribution Workshop (HK) Ltd.
Production company: Lunar Films, Arc Lights Films
Cast: Daniel Wu, Yolanda Yuan
Director: Clara Law
Screenwriter: Eddie Fong, Clara Law
Producer: Eddie Fong, Peggy Chiao
Director of Photography: Sion Michel
Production Designer: Yee Chung-man, Penny Tsai
Music: Paul Grabowsky
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Steve Doyle, Jill Holt
No rating, 113 minutes
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