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Mainland China’s thirst for straight-up contemporary comedy has been demonstrated to exist beyond a reasonable doubt if the runaway success of Xue Xiaolu’s Finding Mr. Right is any indication. Starring an actress once banned from working in the country and riddled with conflicting messages about the state of the nation itself, the rom-com about the pregnant mistress of a powerful tycoon packed off to Seattle to have a baby beyond the reach of the scandal sheets does nothing to tinker with the form and holds zero surprises. But it’s adherence to rom-com convention in an industry top-heavy with historical epics extolling the genius of ancient generals and retreads of popular legends make Finding Mr. Right stand out among the crowd. Xue’s second feature is an exemplar of commercial filmmaking, and production help from a handful of Hong Kong pros (in editing, costume design, cinematography) give it the polished finish the fluffy material demands. Box office success in Asia is likely, but that very polish could make it too mainstream for overseas festivals, though some life on Asia-focused events seems likely.
Jiajia (Tang Wei, Lust, Caution) flies to Seattle (neither the first nor the last reference to Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle) ostensibly as a tourist but in reality she’s there to have her married lover’s baby. She’s greeted at the airport by Frank (television actor Wu Xiubo), who we eventually learn is a Beijing doctor as yet without a license to practice in the United States, and after some setbacks makes her way to a maternity halfway house run by Taiwanese den mother Huang Mali (an always welcome Elaine Jin). Flush with unlimited access to her rich lover’s cash, Jiajia gets a serious case of the high and mighty toward the other residents, Chen Yue (Mai Hongmei) and Zhou Yi (Hai Qing). From this point on Finding Mr. Right deals in the rote: the lover lets Jiajia down at Christmas, she gets lonely and turns to fellow Beijinger Frank for company, feelings develop. When the lover eventually cuts her off, Jiajia, as the beats of these kinds of films demand, finally hits the road to being a better person.
Writer-director Xue has proven adept at manipulating emotion for dramatic effect, as she proved in the tearjerking Jet Li vehicle Ocean Heaven, and though there’s a great deal more comedy in Finding Mr. Right, she does it again. Xue hits all the marks when she’s supposed to: We get irritated by Jiajia’s bullying and elitism, baffled by her materialism, exasperated by her treatment of Frank and inwardly sigh at his endless patience and tolerance—all at pre-ordained points on the narrative course. However, Katherine Heigl could take a lesson from Tang in how to win over an audience by sheer force of personality despite serious character flaws. Jiajia is so outrageously obnoxious at the story’s outset it would be easy to lose viewers by the 30-minute mark, but Xue wisely lets Tang be Tang and keeps us (mostly) invested in her journey. Tang and Xue both get help from Wu in the more thankless role as the grounded anchor to Jiajia’s flighty princess. The appealing central performances also patch over the clunky parts of the script, which frequently relies on lazy mechanics (voice-over exposition, “6 months later” tricks) to move forward.
The Chinese title translates as “Beijing meets Seattle,” which in some ways is a better indication of the film’s story trajectory. At its core the film isn’t really about finding Mr. Right; it’s about Jiajia’s growth as a person, aided by Frank’s inherent decency. The film’s more curious subtext that is critical of modern Chinese excess contradicts the undercurrents in Chinese society insinuating the future is the Mainland by portraying Beijing as a glittering, empty cesspool of rampant materialism populated by horrible materialistic people like Jiajia. Subtle suggestions that the original “Land of Opportunity” is superior in breeding healthy (albeit vaguely insular) community are never explored in great detail but the idea lingers on the periphery. But Finding Mr. Right is as much a dissertation on 21st century social dynamics as Sleepless was, and in the end the hidden message doesn’t matter.
Producer: Bill Kong, Mathew Tang, Lu Hongshi
Director: Xue Xiaolu
Cast: Tang Wei, Wu Xiubo, Elaine Jin, Hai Qing, Mai Hongmei, Song Meihui, Liu Yiwei
Screenwriter: Xue Xiaolu
Executive producer: Hao Lei, Ma Hefeng, Yan Xiaoming
Director of photography: Chan Chi-ying
Production designer: Yee Chung-man
Music: Peter Kam
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Cheung Ka-fai
No rating, 123 minutes
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