By Diana Cheng
Nora Ephron left too soon to see the far-reaching impact of her work. She passed away June 26 last year. Upon the first anniversary of her death, we see the genre she had mastered, romantic comedy, charm the audience in mainland China in the last few months. Sleepless in Seattle is the obvious influence as the Chinese movie Finding Mr. Right released in China in March was catapulted to the top-ten list of the highest grossing domestic films in the country. Now that’s a population of over 1.3 billion.
Homage or borrowing, director and screenwriter Xiao Lu Xue (薛曉路) explicitly refers to Sleepless in Seattle in her story. It is the reason the main character gives when she answers the U.S. customs officer why she wants to travel to Seattle instead of New York or L.A. There is even a clip of Ephron’s film in one of the scenes. The Chinese title 北京遇上西雅圖, when translated to English is ‘Beijing Meets Seattle’, which is more accurate than its English title Finding Mr. Right.
JiaJia (Wei Tang, 湯唯, of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution fame) is the mistress of a Beijing tycoon who is more willing to share his wealth than his time. Pregnant with his child, JiaJia travels from Beijing to Seattle to stay in an illegal half way house for pregnant women. Her plan is to give birth in the U.S. so the baby can obtain legitimate citizenship. A spoiled, arrogant and materialistic JiaJia meets Frank (Wu Xiubo, 吴秀波) the driver who comes to pick her up at the airport.
Frank used to be a physician in Beijing, but has yet to be licensed in the U.S., now a divorced parent raising a young daughter. In Frank, JiaJia gradually sees a descent man, selfless and caring, ever patient with her, much more than myself as a viewer. So, instead of intentionally looking for Mr. Right, JiaJia serendipitously meets one. Eventually the relationship they strike up begins to transform her into a Ms. Right. And then, a twist. Without giving too much of a spoiler but enough, so be warned, the film ends with a rendezvous at the iconic observation deck of the Empire State Building, again reminiscence of Sleepless In Seattle.
The story is well meaning, with a definite social statement. Evolving from a politically authoritative society, urbanites in China have been dominated by yet another powerful force in recent decades, materialism. So director Xue’s screenplay is a timely message. Here is an actual dialogue (from the English subtitles): “Luxury brands for what? They don’t make you happy… they’re meaningless,” which could sound corny and didactic for another audience in another social context, but explicitly clear and could well be effective in its own land.
This is a welcome trend that Chinese movies have embraced a more contemporary, individualistic genre apart from the usual national and historical epic, or the martial arts action. The focus on the individual allows the exploring of personal choices, values and meaning, themes more contemporary and universal. In this sense, Finding Mr. Right is a tasty, easy to swallow health drink.
Xue has taken a different path from her directorial debut Ocean Heaven (海洋天堂, 2010), with Jet Li (李連杰) in his first non-martial-art role as a terminally ill father preparing for the future of his autistic son, a film that is well-done in its aesthetic and thematic content. In Looking for Mr. Right, her second feature, Xue is too preoccupied with the shift of genre from serious drama to romcom that she has sidestepped character development. Often JiaJia and Frank look like caricatures, the spoiled, material girl contrasting the quiet, subservient, nice guy.
As for filming locations, how much can one city pass for another? Here is an interesting take. All Seattle scenes were shot in Metro Vancouver, 120 miles up north in Canada. The City itself is a hub for film productions and has a vibrant Chinese community. Not a bad idea since both cities share the same seacoast and similar climate. But those familiar with these two places can easily spot the discrepancies. One shot we see the Space Needle, the next Stanley Park. But as a Chinese domestic film aiming at a domestic market, the lack of an accurate foreign location could readily be overlooked. Glad that The Empire State Building is The Empire State Building.
Back to Nora Ephron. There is much to learn from her romcoms. The main thing is, romcom does not mean superficial characterization. Think back to When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), Julie and Julia (2009), she had given us likable characters that are real and for whom we care. Chances are, even if you had forgotten details of the story, you would still remember the characters and even their lines as years passed by. This brings us to the humor, subtle or explicit, sprinkled generously in the intelligent dialogues, often cerebral pretending to be not. The opposite is true with the dialogues in Finding Mr. Right.
Even Sleepless in Seattle predicates on an earlier movie, An Affair to Remember (1957) with Carry Grant and Deborah Kerr’s star-crossed meeting at the observation deck of the Empire State Building. So using a motif from another movie is not a lack of originality per se. What is needed though is one’s own voice and individual style telling a relevant story. Nora Ephron had stamped her signature on her romcoms. I anticipate more of Xue’s movies in the future. My wish is that she would use Ephron’s works as exemplars and her first two features as springboard to develop a deeper style and an intelligent voice, and continue to speak for themes worth exploring in her country and elsewhere.