Sunday, June 10, 2012

HOT SUMMER DAYS (HK 2010) -- B+

 Barbie Hsu breaking a sweat in Hot Summer Days.

Directors: Tony Chan and Wing Shya, Screenwriters: Tony Chan and Lucretia Ho, Producers: Fruit Chan and Paul Cheng, Cast: Nicholas Tse, Jacky Cheung, Daniel Wu, Vivian Hsu, Barbie Hsu, Rene Liu, Duan Yihong, Angelababy, William Chan, Jing Bo Ran, Michelle Wai, Gordon Liu, Charlene Choi, Shawn Yu, Fruit Chan, Kate Yeung, Jan Lamb, Joey Wong, and Maggie Cheung

Review:

Hot Summer Days marks the first Chinese-language film produced by 20th Century Fox in its then seventy-five-year history. Packed with stars hailing from Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Taiwan, it's the kind of middle-of-the-road ensemble romantic comedy that American audiences have been eating up for decades. However, this Chinese take on the genre possesses just enough redeeming qualities to elevate it -- albeit slightly -- above the pack of formulaic rom coms churned out by studios around the world. Gorgeously shot with several fine performances, Hot Summer Days is a date movie of epic proportions, as we're treated to a whole stable of good-looking actors -- often glistening with sweat -- as they try to find love in the sweltering heat of summer.

In Hong Kong, we meet Wai (Nicholas Tse), whose air conditioning repair shop is seeing a much-needed boom in business during the blistering heat wave. While coping with the heat, he ends up falling for a black eyeliner-wearing, tough-as-nails biker chick named -- of all things -- Ding Dong (Barbie Hsu). The pair make an attractive couple, and the actors possess wonderful chemistry, but it would've been refreshing if the film hasn't relied so strongly on manufactured melodrama to close out this segment. For a tearjerker to work, you've got to be emotionally invested in the characters, and the film doesn't take its time to explore their relationship in a truly satisfying way. Further, the film's treatment of the much more serious content that arises from Ding Dong's personal story is cursory at best.

The much better story of Hot Summer Days involves veteran actors Jacky Cheung and Rene Liu and centers on a long distance friendship-turned-romance involving their characters: Li Yan (Liu), an out-of-work, classically trained pianist living in Shenzhen, and Wah (Cheung), a down-on-his-luck chauffeur and single dad. Due to an accidental text message, Wah and Li Yan embark on a cutesy friendship/flirtation. Despite her talents, Li Yan has had to take a position at a foot massage parlor, a fact which she hides from her new friend. Similarly, Wah, who's been working odd jobs just to make ends meet, lies to her and says he's a Ferrari race car driver. As their long-distance friendship develops, the two end up providing each other with some much needed comfort and support during tough economic times.

In certain ways, this section of the film can be read as a commentary on the advent of text messaging in our modern culture. People have become so introverted and unable to have normal conversation with one another that they rely on the "safety" of text messaging to perform their identity for others, as opposed to just calling someone directly or (gasp!) seeing them face-to-face. Their would-be romance boasts quite a few funny sequences, particularly one about the disparity between what a person thinks and what he or she actually writes during a burgeoning romantic courtship via text messaging. I won't pretend this is great cinema, but Jacky Cheung and Rene Liu are so fun to watch,  their romance doesn't feel like the trifle it actually is. Hands down, this is my favorite storyline in the movie.

Poster for Hot Summer Days -- with every actor shown completely out of character.

Unfortunately, not all of the stories in Hot Summer Days can match up to this one. In another Hong Kong-set storyline, we meet a writer (Vivian Hsu) bearing the strange nome de plume, "Wasabi." She's come back to HK after a whirlwind tour of the globe to reunite with her old boyfriend (an oddly mustachioed Daniel Wu), a sushi chef with the equally stupid nickname, "Soy Sauce" (they BELONG TOGETHER, get it?). However, their reunion doesn't go as planned as the two former flames get into an argument. Here's where it gets a little too cutesy and unrealistic for me. Soy Sauce tries to call Wasabi back to apologize, but she won't acknowledge him until he's called her back enough times to match the number of post-it notes it takes for her to make a paper heart on her window. WHAAAAAT? Nonsensical and idiotic, this particular storyline coasts on the appeal of its two actors, but largely falls flat.

The absolute worst segment of the film is the Beijing-set sequence involving Leslie Guan (Duan Yihong) a pompous fashion photographer who is struck blind after a cruel rant against a young model (Michelle Wai). With his faithful assistant (Fu Xinbo) by his side, Leslie pursues the the young woman in the hopes that a sincere apology will break "the curse." This is by far the stupidest and most annoying storyline in that it not only doesn't match the clearly romantic vibe of the other stories, but the premise is utterly ridiculous, even after a last-second reveal that changes everything. Unlike the Daniel Wu-Vivian Hsu storyline, this segment cannot coast on the appeal of its actors. Really, it could have been cut out to give us more time with the other, much more compelling characters.

Rounding out these stories is one involving two teenagers. This segment hinges on a nostalgia for a simpler time, although the amber hues mask deeper issues worthy of cultural critique. Somewhere in Mainland China, we meet a poor local boy Xiao Fang (Jing Boran), who will do just about anything to win the affections of a beautiful young factory worker named Xiao Qi (Angelababy). She orders him to stand in a spot for 100 days if he wants to court her. He does his best to follow her direct orders, but figures out a few creative loopholes...with comic results. But it's not all laughs as sight gags, as there's some serious drama by the end. It's a little too cliche, but overall, it makes for a satisfying little interlude.

What the hell is he talking about up there?

Amidst these tales of young and not-so-young love, the film also features Gordon Liu, as the estranged dad of Nicholas Tse's character. The old fart hangs around the beach and tells dirty jokes to a bevy of bikini-clad girls. Charlene Choi and Shawn Yu show up for brief cameos, but the biggest surprise of all involves an actress one wouldn't expect. I normally wouldn't ruin a cameo, but since a) this movie is two years old and b) I think mentioning it might actually convince a person to watch it, I'll divulge her identity. Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung appears briefly in the film as a mysterious, lovesick woman pouring out her heart to Daniel Wu. Unfortunately, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai does not appear to cheer her up.

While cliche-ridden and overly schmaltzy at times, Hot Summer Days makes for an enjoyable viewing experience, largely due to some strong performances and some gorgeous production values.Overall, I would say that Hot Summer Days is able to bring a semblance of balance to its multiple storylines, although some are definitely more satisfying than others.

-- Calvin McMillin, 2012.

Hot Summer Days is currently available on VCD, region 3 DVD, and region-free Blu-Ray, while Netflix Instant currently boasts an impressive HD transfer for US customers.

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