'See You Tomorrow' ('Bai Du Ren'): Film Review

See You Tomorrow Still 2 - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Block 2 Pictures
A whole that's less than the sum of its parts.

Wong Kar-wai produces and Tony Leung Chiu-wai stars in Chinese writer Zhang Jiajia's directorial debut.

"Everything looks better when one's drunk," says See You Tomorrow's protagonist when asked to explain his penchant for a tipple. If that's really true, Chinese novelist Zhang Jiajia's directorial debut should be washed down with a steady stream of hard liquor. Revolving around a bar owner and the broken relationships of his friends and clientele, the film is an impermeable melange of shapeless storytelling, rehashed gags, vacuous relationships and painfully over-the-top performances from its usually top-notch cast.

Released to much fanfare in China because of producer Wong Kar-wai's pedigree, See You Tomorrow enjoyed a strong opening-weekend run — $49.1 million in four days since its Dec. 23 release — that has since slowed in the face of overwhelmingly negative feedback online. The film might still have some earning potential in Asian markets where Wong and his A-list stars still hold critical currency — Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan probably — but it's hard to see Tomorrow getting a look beyond those shores.

In the run-up to the film's release, Zhang Jiajia said he wanted See You Tomorrow to be like "a Wong Kar-wai film, but made by Stephen Chow," the Hong Kong superstar who pioneered a comedy style heavily reliant on anachronisms and nonsense. Adapting a short story from his book I Belonged To You — which was already transformed into a more straightforward comedy in the summer, with Zhang's approval — the writer-turned-filmmaker has certainly delivered those anachronisms and nonsense, but without the eloquence, originality and poise that have made Chow a master of his art.

Not that that was an impossible task. Jeff Lau, who co-founded Jet Tone Films with Wong and directed Chow in All For The Winner and A Chinese Odyssey, delivered a sublime mashup of the former's slow-moving Ashes of Time and the latter's utter comedic weirdness with the 1993 comedy The Eagle Shooting Heroes. This is the sort of achievement that Zhang aspires to copy in Tomorrow, which the director (with the help of Wong himself, credited here as a co-writer) seems to have conceived as a comical, upbeat homage to Wong's 2004 drama 2046, in which a man narrates his and his acquaintances' lost loves.

The major link between Tomorrow and 2046 is, of course, Tony Leung. Here, his character Chen Mo is a smooth operator with a reputation for guiding spurned lovers out of their anguish. Two individuals stand out among his roster of lost souls: Chen's landlord Guan Chun (Takeshi Kaneshiro), on a quest to reconnect with pancake chef Mao Mao (Sandrine Pinna), an old flame who has somehow forgotten everything about their relationship; and Xiao Yu (Angelababy), entangled in a relationship with rock star Ma Li (Eason Chan), whose marriage has just fallen apart. But Chen Mo's super-slick veneer also hides a painful past, in the form of a doomed relationship with bartender He Muzi (Du Juan) from a decade ago.

Just like in 2046 and most of Wong Kar-wai's films, all these disparate arcs unfold out of time and order. While it works well in Wong's films and many others, Zhang's movie suffers from the chaotically uneven tone and rhythm of the individual parts. This is especially evident in the flashbacks that introduce the backstory for the tormented characters: The Guan-Mao thread plays out like the Hong Kong mobster melodrama Young and Dangerous; Xiao Yu's recollection of her meet-cute with Ma looks like a stand-alone music video; and Chen's memories of his life with He offer misty-eyed dreamscapes that feel derivative of (what else?) Wong Kar-wai's oeuvre.

But these relationships never go beyond pratfalls and posturing, and the film lacks coherence and cohesiveness. Just like the characters drinking their sorrows away at Chen Mo's bar, Zhang seems to believe that the way to bliss is to throw basically everything into his mighty cocktail.

An expert in playing to the tastes of the millions who read his work and followed him on Chinese social media, Zhang seems to want to please everyone here. Those who grew up in the 1980s might relate to the prominent presence of the arcade game King of Fighters in one of the narrative threads, while Chinese millenials craving contemporary showbiz glitter may rejoice in a cameo from heartthrob du jour Lu Han (The Great Wall).

See You Tomorrow is further weighed down by Albert Yau's excessively loud and colorful representations of Shanghai nightlife, not to mention the ridiculous hamming of Kaneshiro and Pinna, generally two of the most carefully calibrated performers around. Never mind getting drunk: See You Tomorrow is a showcase for how less is sometimes more.

Production companies: Jet Tone Pictures in a Block 2 Pictures, Alibaba Pictures presentation
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Angelababy, Eason Chan, Sandrine Pinna
Director: Zhang Jiajia
Screenwriters: Zhang Jiajia, Wong Kar-wai, based on a story from Zhang Jiajia's novel
I Belonged To You
Producers: Jacky Pang, Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Qiang
Directors of photography: Peter Pau, Cao Yu
Production designer: Alfred Yau
Editor: David Wu
Music: Nathaniel Méchaly
In Cantonese and Mandarin
128 minutes