by Jay Seaver
The movie listings this Valentine's Day are weird: The big studio release is "Fifty Shades of Grey" and in that spirit, my local theaters are pulling out prints of "Secretary", bringing "The Duke of Burgundy" back for a few more shows, and even booking "R100" in one particularly odd case. Nothing but kink, with the near-sole exception of "Somewhere Only We Know", making its way across the Pacific just days after opening in China. It's a thoroughly sweet love story that wears its old-fashioned sappiness on its sleeve, and that, somehow, serves as the alternative to what's playing next door.As it starts out, Jin Tian (Wang Likun) has been in Prague for about a month. She came after the grandmother who raised her died and her boyfriend broke up with her, and still feels out of sorts. Through friends Luo Ji (Juck Zhang) and Shan Shan (Re Yizha), she meets cellist Peng Ze-yang (Kris Wu Yifan), who has lived in Europe for years. They hit it off, and he helps her follow the clues in a letter sent to her grandmother back in 1979. After all, she's in Prague because grandmother Chen Lanxin (Xu Jinglei) spent time there after World War II, where she apparently became quite friendly with on Dr. Josef Novak (Gordon Alexander).
"Simple Hollywood romance, from China by way of Prague."
Prague is often used as a shooting location for films that take place in previous eras, and it's kind of interesting that, aside from one shot, director Xu Jinglei and cinematographer Mark Ping Bin-lee don't visually differentiate present-day Prague much from the post-war city. It marks the location as timeless, and in some cases Xu allows the two love stories to bump against each other, letting Tian and Lanxin be two young women finding love halfway around the world rather than emphasizing the generational aspect. Of course, it's also a beautiful, exotic location that Xu and Ping seem to get a great kick out of filming, even if the there is something just a bit odd about having nearly every major character in a movie set in central Europe be Chinese.
Of course, that does prevent a bit of the awkwardness of the post-war scenes, where Xu plays much of her part in English and Gordon Alexander affects a sometimes-questionable accent. It's a sweet story nonetheless, very traditional and straightforward, and while the pair takes a bit of time to gel, that does give it a bit of authenticity. Alexander never quite gets over that stiffness, but Xu makes a part that could be blandly serene and perfect - we have to see her as both the love of Josef's live life and the grandmother Tian adores, after all - and gives her a grounded, honest feel.
The group in the present has to attempt a little more complexity, and it can honestly be a bit of a mixed bag. Wang Likun and Kris Wu are an enjoyable pair to watch on screen; Wu has a great way of making Ze-yang basically nice but also prone to push too far in a sort of snotty way, emphasizing the character's youth without making him look unpleasant or foolish. Wang is complementary as Tian, letting the audience see how much emotional weight is on her without precluding the chance of her being happy later. Xu and her brace of co-writers do have a tendency to hammer themes home hard, but she is good at revealing new layers of a character, especially when showing just how crippling Tian's fear of abandonment is getting.
Even when the film is coming across as a bit simplistic, the details are nice. There's a bouncy, jazzy score, and a nice third pairing between Juck Zhang and the energetic Re Yizha. The bouncing back and forth between time periods can be a bit random, but each ends well, and that's perhaps the most important thing. The stories do reflect each other without being too obvious about it.The closing titles have Xu dedicating this to her own grandmother, so this is probably a project quite close to her heart. If so, it shows, because the movie certainly gives a warm feeling, despite its flaws, and that's nice to see this particular February.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=28566&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/15/15 15:40:18