Saturday, May 26, 2012

1MB On Film: Movie Review: Joyful Reunion

Official movie synopsis:

People once said, love is like flavour; once you have a taste of it, you will never forget.
Wa'er's Father runs a well-known vegetarian restaurant in Hangzhou. Wa'er herself is a successful manager of a luxurious health resort. Her boyfriend, Zhang Quan, is a computer game designer from Taipei, who loves Wa'er but spends too much time in the virtual world. Zhang Quan's auntie, Apple, raised him like her own son. She's squandering her life in alcohol and nightclubs due to loneliness. In order to help his auntie get her life back on track, Zhang Quan takes her back to Hangzhou, which is also her hometown. Apple's arrival causes quite a stir in Zhang Quan and Wa'er's lives. After one incident, the tension between Wa'er and Zhang Quan explodes. The father is secretly planning on closing the restaurant due to his illness. Wa'er and her sister Xiao Lan decide to help their father fight the disease and keep the restaurant. Apple finds out the answer to the secret that she has kept for over fifty years. Because of the restaurant, the relationships of the two generations intertwines and bonds again.

[Synopsis courtesy of the Berlin International Film Festival]

Last week, I was excited to attend the US debut of Joyful Reunion, held on closing night of the LA Asian Film Fest at the CRV Cinemas in Koreatown. 

Marketing it as the sequel to Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman was both necessary as an audience draw, and unfortunate in bringing its downfall for many, in my opinion. Joyful Reunion really only has the loosest ties to the first film in that they both use food as a centrifugal force and canvas for main characters to express suppressed emotion. Without the deft hand, quick wit and insightful commentary of the first, Joyful Reunion is not artful masterpiece, but not every movie has to be.  I found this one moving and entertaining nonetheless.  The cinematic equivalent of a surprisingly satisfying vegetarian meal, depending on your expectations going into it.

It definitely ruined my makeup, for good reason.  I loved the movie on many levels, despite some major narrative and character development flaws. 

It's only human to perceive the world through the lens of personal experience.  For me the film was all about the one woman.  I don't know if it was because I could see her as a Ghost of Christmas Future of sorts, or her character appealed as the most complex and best developed - more revelatory like a dragonfruit or rambutan than her namesake common household fare - but Apple was my favorite character in the movie. So I write this review with her as my focus.

You see what she is about in sections - in Taipei, Hangzhou: pre-dinner, Hangzhou: flashback and Hangzhou: post dinner - with vast differences in how she sees herself versus how each of the other characters see her, and each section leaves you with a different aftertaste.

When Apple first appears, you want to scorn everything about her - she's a 60-something dancing by herself in a tragi-comically vibrant outfit complete with ridiculous headphones at a club packed with 20-somethings, a club where she also drinks too much and flirts with a bartender who she's made her pseudo-family, who keeps and heats up leftovers in a lunchbox for her to eat at the counter. Her apartment is in as much disrepair as her life - clothes, even bras strewn everywhere in plain view for her nephew Zhang to see.  She goes against everything Asian kids know and expect of maternal figures: she doesn't care where Zhang sleeps, spends all night drinking and is still slurring words by morning.  She's a mess, and in a reversal of roles, it's her 30-something nephew Zhang Quan who must extract her from the toxic environment and persuade her to get her life back on track.

Zhang brings his train wreck aunt back to Hangzhou - where she also grew up - to meet his girlfriend Wa'er, and Apple is no more likeable there either. The overly vocal out of towner with crazy clown hair, when at a meal at Wa'er's father's beautiful, zen-like fine dining all vegetarian restaurant loudly critiques everything from the ridiculousness of a meatless restaurant, to portion size, to the 'fuss' taken with presentation and service. Vegetables, she says, are for poor people who couldn't afford anything else during the war.  She crashes Wa'er's workplace, a high-end, members-only resort spa, and insists on staying without paying.  She stirs up trouble for Wa'er when, upon hearing rumors of her being target of a workplace crush, she rushes to brashly confront the Chairman to shame him for hitting on her nephew's girlfriend.

But then we get a glimpse of a past, possibly beautiful life, when she crashes ballroom dance class and hits the floor like a pro - glowing with confidence, poise, joy and elegant sensuality (so frowned upon for older asian women!), gaining sudden admiration from employees and guests alike with her moves on the dock with the gwei lo at the lake, and anywhere else she could fit a dance or two (in between free massages, that is).  She starts to change, expressed outwardly with a new chic hairdo and more refined wardrobe. We learn that the moocher, the obnoxious negative nelly, might have a heart of gold - she raised Zhang as her own when her sister abandoned him - and the bond is clear in their familiarity - as in the playful scene where they try to call dibs on the only bed in his studio.

And then we see an unexpected flashback scene on the streets, when she is overwhelmed by a flood of memories of a lost love - and we get the clue of a possible tragic past, and pain not frivolity as cause for the state we found her at the beginning of the movie.  Yet she looked so young in the flashbacks, what could have sustained the pain over 40+ years?

[Spoiler alert]
When we finally see Wa'er's father and Apple together at that final dinner, after Zhang and Wa'er had already broken up and Apple makes a last ditch effort to repair the relationship - Chef Tang recognizes Apple immediately (she was the one he had been dreaming of her all these years, savoring every moment he had with her).  Apple has no idea who he is...until she tastes the dish he created for her.  A rustic dish - I can't remember what was in it now, but apparently it was so unique and amazing that one taste and she knew it was the love of her life, from so long ago - they met while he apprenticed for the same chef, and were separated when he was pulled into the war (cue flashback of her blunt and now ironic statement from her first visit to the restaurant! cue realization that he only cooks vegetarian to hang onto memories of his love back in that village so long ago - where they were poor and life was simple but they were happy!). 

Unable to process this after all these decades apart - they each run off with their kids in tow.  Chef Tang had been diagnosed with Alzheimers earlier in the film, and was planning on closing the restaurant - this was literally his last service, and she waltzes back into his life just as he is on the cusp of losing it (in memories).

I love that in the end, Apple realizes she's spent a wasted life repressing thoughts of young Tang, and now so many years later they finally find each other and come to admit that they've spent their whole lives missing the other, and reunite just before he loses grip on his memories. Very unrealistically, she's the only one he continues to remember past that point - he can't remember his daughters, but he remembers his beloved Apple, and I love that with another glimpse into that heart of gold we see that she stays to care for him and enjoy what remains of their time together.  We're supposed to get that they are the best, though damaged, versions of themselves with each other.
[End spoiler]

There are many criticisms of the film from its lotus root like plot and soap opera style character constructs. The flashbacks are somewhat drawn out and cliched.  Some of the comedy feels forced. There isn't any reference to Chef Tang - with his seeming wealth - doing more to track down the love of his life all these decades.  You do get some nice vegetarian food porn shots in the movie though.

The other men who serve as love interests are all pretty much two dimensional. You get some sense Zhang the videogame designer is a good person, afterall, he is a critical part of the plot device to care for his aunt by bringing her to Hangzhou. In a puppy love move, he does model his lead game character after his girlfriend, the radiant, captivatingly capable Wa'er.

The little sister. a caricature of the immature, good-time girl - and her boyfriend who's a fun partner on that ride until a silly misunderstanding - don't add anything to the film either.

Aside from Apple, Wa'er was the only other character to offer anything of emotional interest on screen - she starts off just the girlfriend, to a broken-hearted daughter and career woman who realizes her personal vulnerabilities, and comes into her own in terms of knowing what she wants and needs out of her partner, and learning that she deserves to receive it.  And that she is strong enough to stand on her own, if she doesn't get that.  But that the man who is always there for her - it doesn't matter if she can't give her heart to him - you can't help who you love.

In all its elements the movie seems to say that all the flavors: bitter, sweet, sour, spicy - these all flavor life. It's all in what you decide to do with it.

All in all, if I had to sum this film up in a cliched soundbite: it's sort of like the Asian version of Like Water for Chocolate meets The Notebook. All three, at their core, were about a love so strong that it can withstand life.  And all that you go through in it - is what gives it flavor, color and texture.  And it's like Babette's Feast somewhat in its message about embracing those around us because you will never get to truly know who they are if you only focus on the surface or things that ire you.  In the end, you leave with hope that with some measure of luck and destiny, all will end up as it was meant to be.  This isn't a very cerebral film, but a moving one. Is it cheesy or trite or wrong?  So be it - I'm in that frame of mind right now.


1MB Rating: 3.5 bites (out of 5)
Screening date: May 17th, 2012
Los Angeles Asia Pacific Film Fest site:
Likelihood of 2nd Helping?: 90% (whenever there's another screening or it gets distribution!)

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