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Didi's Dream
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by Jay Seaver

"Things get weird in one's sister's shadow."
4 stars

This one really took me by surprise; the lowest-profile of three Chinese-language movies to open in North America on the same date, it wouldn't be a surprise if it were the scraps that someone had to settle for. Instead, it's an odd charmer, coming on like good screwball comedy and then getting much sweeter than I would have expected. It's genuinely eccentric but also impressively sincere.

Shangguan LingLing (Lin Chiling) is one of Taiwan's most popular actresses, a superstar about to start a new picture with legendary director Xia Wuji. Her younger sister, Shangguan DiDi (Dee Hsu Hsi-ti), is not so successful by a long shot, getting jobs at the fringes of show business in between auditioning for sadistic producers. Her boyfriend Button (Jin Shijia) is nice, though. But, just as DiDi gets news that encourages her to make a big push in her career, LingLing finds herself involved in a scandal that the studio producing her new film could use some distraction from, and casting the previously-obscure sister that she hasn't spoken to in years would do it.

Not that it starts out with that - no, it starts out in a noodle shop on a space station, with the camera doing one of those impossible tracking shots through a frozen moment in time. If it were just a genre fake-out like Pang Ho-cheung recently pulled at the start of Love Off the Cuff, it would be fun, but filmmaker Kevin Tsai Kang-yong shoots it so that it always looks like someone might have moved over in the corner, a bit of knowing artificiality which pays off just far enough from the expected way to get a bigger laugh than expected. Tsai segues from this to having a lot of fun with show business silliness, poking at how every dumb thing one sees on TV has somebody with greater ambitions behind it with some really well-executed jokes; there's a bit involving a line being a tongue-twister that scores even if one doesn't speak a bit of Mandarin because of how well the cast approaches it (I actually wonder how well it works for Mandarin-speakers; it's not actually subtitled in English until an end-credits callback, so I didn't realize what utter nonsense it was until then).

As all this is going down, DiDi gets some terrible news, and Tsai makes some interesting choices of where he goes with it - he's got the chance to make a hard turn toward melodrama, but instead charts a course that many in the audience might actually identify with better: The second half of the movie feels almost like denial. Sure, facts have been acknowledged, but one finds reasons to discount them for as long as possible, with a fair amount of pretending things are okay until someone does something that points out that things aren't entirely okay. What's going on with DiDi becomes an interesting parallel with the sisters' estrangement at times, a fact of life that she seems to ignore in terms of how much she talks about it but which clearly motivates much of what she does.

I also found myself really impressed with Dee Hsu for pulling that off. DiDi's most endearing quality is perhaps that she doesn't visibly set herself in a defiant posture after a setback, internalizing her determination rather than making any sort of show of it - even the moments when she gives in aren't showy moments for her, but genuinely understated in a way that makes DiDi's best qualities clearer (and, for that part, those of "Xu Chonmei", her alter ego in the noodle shop). One of those best qualities is how funny she is, and Hsu is great with the jokes, diving into the absurdity or turning around a line well enough that a language barrier doesn't much matter. Jin Shijia spends a lot of time as her straight man and mostly-delighted accomplice, helping to move a lot of lively scenes along. Lin Chiling turns in a kind of nifty performance as LingLing, giving the impression of this movie star who is almost ethereal and disconnected from the everyday life of folks like DiDi and Button and then making her very human foibles and good intentions interesting counters.

The movie will occasionally jump in an unexpected direction, and some of its crazy shifts will likely be too much for some viewers - the last few scenes are, when I break them down, an almost absurdly outsize attempt to have one's cake and eat it too, and I feel like I shouldn't be as readily able to forgive that as I am. But it works well enough that I find myself embracing Tsai's odd choices, which happens when something better-than-expected winds up sneaking up on me the way that "DiDi's Dream" did.

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originally posted: 06/07/17 03:53:59
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Directed by
  Kevin Tsai

Written by
  Kevin Tsai

  Dee Hsu
  Shijia Jin
  Chiling Lin

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