Lao Wai -- Film Review

Unassuming romantic drama that doesn't try to be something it isn't.

HANOI -- The only film making its world premiere at the inaugural Vietnam International Film Festival is one that could well be the beginning of a larger trend in Asian cinema.

First-time feature director and French national Fabien Gaillard's Lao Wai -- literally "the foreigner" -- is an unassuming romantic drama that revolves around a French musician living in Shanghai and his relationship with a woman from Wuhan.

The film could see a respectable life on the festival circuit in Asia, but it's going to play best in China where it was made. Art-house releases outside the mainland could be a long shot, but careful marketing by a creative distributor could result in modest success in urban centers across the region.

While cinematic explorations of cultural displacement aren't new, Lao Wai is notable for its point of view -- the foreigner's. Gaillard steers clear of the archetypes found in more trifling fare like the regional hit My Sweetheart is a Foreigner. Narratives spoken in the local dialect by non-natives have been rare to now, surprising considering migration pattern of the last couple of decades.

Lao Wai is nothing if not current, and Gaillard is more concerned with humanistic interaction than with whether or not the white guy can use chopsticks and how amusing it is for locals to watch.

Paul (Gauthier Roubichou, a hybrid of Jude Law and Vincent Cassel) and Mei (Han Dan Tong) meet, fall in love, and move in together. A rather rote misunderstanding involving Paul's ex-girlfriend sends their relationship into a tailspin, and Mei heads home to Wuhan before they can patch things up. The romantic dilemma is a little forced. (Mei catches Paul asleep yet fully clothed in the ex's apartment)

Gaillard flirts with stereotype in manipulative career gal Vicky (Jenevieve Chang). But Lao Wai has several redeeming moments where what could be the director's own experiences shine through, lending veracity and insight to the low-key drama while, critically, never condescending to either of his subjects.

Venue: Vietnam International Film Festival
Production company: Must Productions
Cast: Gauthier Roubichou, Han Dan Tong, Jenevieve Chang
Director/screenwriter: Fabien Gaillard
Producer: Gaetan Hachez, Fabien Gaillard
Director of photography: Gilles Labarbe, Julie Mormont
Music: The Swing Dinasty
Costume designer: Catherine Cheng
Editor: Coralie Van Rietschoten
No rating, 89 minutes