A Chinese Tale: Rome Film Review

Sweet Argentine comedy metabolizes life’s absurdity in a simple piece of enjoyable family entertainment

The little film that could, Sebastian Borensztein's simple comedy won Rome's two biggest prizes.

No need to hassle with chopsticks to enjoy the gentle, unsophisticated comedy of A Chinese Tale, the small-scale Argentine film that was the big winner at the Rome Film Festival, taking home both the jury’s Best Film nod and the audience prize.

A gruff hardware store owner, convinced that life is inherently meaningless, is forced out of his self-imposed shell by a hapless Chinese boy who chances his way. Fans of Argentine star Ricardo Darin, who spiced up The Secret in Their Eyes, will have some extra motivation to sample writer-director Sebastian Borensztein’s simple flavors in a competently directed piece of whimsical family entertainment.   

The story opens promisingly on an idyllic, hyperrealist lake scene identified as Fucheng, China. An overdressed young couple are in a boat in the middle of the lake, about to become engaged. As Jun (Huang Sheng Huang) turns to get out the ring, tragedy strikes in the form of a cow falling from the sky, capsizing the small craft. Jun survives the impact; his betrothed does not.

Some time later, in a hardware store in central Buenos Aires, Roberto (Darin) is maniacally counting nails to see if the wholesalers have cheated him. His grouchy interface with customers and friends alike flag him as ready for a good lesson from life. Completing the pat set-up is his non-starting relationship with the sweet, lovelorn Mari (Muriel Santa Ana) a country girl he once bedded in a moment of passion.

All remaining plot developments are triggered as soon as Jun appears on the scene. Robbed by a cabdriver and unable to speak a word of Spanish, the weeping youth ends up as Roberto’s unwanted houseguest while he waits for his uncle to turn up. Unable to turn him out on the street and unwilling to put him up indefinitely, Roberto goes mad with frustration as he seeks a solution between the embassy and Chinatown.

The sit com atmosphere is alleviated, very slightly, by a philosophical subtext dealing with coincidence and the meaning of life. Roberto has a habit of clipping absurd tragedies from the newspaper, which apparently help him justify his misanthropic, anti-social world view. Because of the language barrier, he doesn’t know how well Jun’s unhappy story fits in with his theories. Borensztein makes a belated attempt to include Argentina’s 1982 war with England over ownership of the Falkland Islands as the most surreal event of all, but doesn’t fully convince.

The whole film revolves around Darin’s canny portrayal of the introverted hermit with a hidden heart of gold. Though about as far from a romantic lead as you can get here, his star quality still shines through attractively. The wide-eyed Huang conveys a routine sense of childlike mystery, without contributing much to the relationship or the story.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (competing), Nov. 3, 2011.

Production companies: Tornasol Films, Castafiore Films
Cast: Ricardo Darin, Huang Sheng Huang, Muriel Santa Ana
Director: Sebastian Borensztein
Screenwriter: Sebastian Borensztein
Producer: Gerardo Herrero, Juan Pablo Buscarini, Pablo Rossi, Isabel Garcia Peralta
Director of photography: Rodrigo Pulpeiro
Production designers: Laura Musso, Valeria Ambrossio
Music: Lucio Godoy
Costumes:  Cristina Menella
Editor: Fernando Pardo
Sales Agent: Latido Films
No rating, 98 minutes.