Taiwanese filmmaker Liao Ming-yi’s debut is said to be the first Asian movie shot on iPhones, a gimmick that no longer feels particularly fresh but one that is peculiarly suited to the themes he addresses. The portrait mode does a good job of conveying the discomfort of living with OCD, which our hero, Chen Po-ching (Austin Lin), suffers from. Po-ching, who sports an immaculate widow’s peak and a buff physique, manifests many of the stereotypical behavioral ticks associated with OCD: incessant cleaning, running errands at the exact same time every day while taking the same number of steps to the supermarket, and donning two layers of protective gear to ward off germs and other airborne contagions. As a freelance translator, he has no need for face-to-face contact with others and, on the surface at least, seems content with his lot, though as his therapist presciently points out, it’s all in his head, meaning he won’t die or otherwise fall victim to illness if he breaks out of his claustrophobic routine.
And then he meets Chen Ching (Nikki Hsieh), whom he spies at the supermarket similarly clad in PPE while shoplifting. Intrigued, he forces himself to strike up a conversation and finds that she, too, suffers from a condition that restricts her movement, except that in her case it really is mandatory. She can only leave her home for an hour or two at a time before breaking out in severe skin allergies. Moreover, while Po-ching’s odd outlook on life is determined by his psychological condition, Ching’s has been warped to a certain extent by the frustrations brought on by her illness, thus the shoplifting, which she doesn’t do for the sake of survival but as a means of coping with her demons.
Nonetheless, Liao’s film is a comedy, at least for the first half, and while the iPhone thing forces him to come up with unique, often funny exposition tricks, most of the requisite quirkiness is afforded by the bright, primary-color production design. Once it is established that Po-ching is a good translator but an atrocious typist and Ching won a typing award as an adolescent, there’s nothing to do but for her to move in with him and share their lives, which leads to various other cute moments that show how two oddballs, as Po-ching puts it, can not only get along but fall in love.
And that’s where the movie loses its way. As soon as Liao changes the aspect ratio through what looks like magical realism and Po-ching decides that he has to make an effort to meet the world halfway, the meaning in the relationship falls to the side. Though this kind of melodramatic development is natural for a romantic comedy, in this particular case Liao can’t seem to figure out how it might manifest itself, and he resorts to the kinds of cinematic cliches that went out of fashion with Spellbound. Moreover, his decision to switch POVs only succeeds in needlessly confounding the audience and diluting his dramatic intentions. While I normally only have so much patience with the kind of cute romantic style that Liao brings to bear, I found it made total sense for the story he was telling. It’s too bad he didn’t see it through to the end.
In Mandarin. Opens Aug. 20 in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).
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