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This Is Not What I Expected
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by Jay Seaver

"Yummy, with good ingredients."
4 stars

I feel marginally less guilty than usual for eating some less-than-great mozzarella sticks during a movie about delicious and beautiful food than usual here, what with this being a somewhat faster-paced and less food-porn-y flick than something like "Cook Up a Storm". Instead, it's a simple but no less enjoyable romantic comedy, with opposites attracting and trying to keep their identities secret, stretching things out a bit but mostly working out.

The Rosebud Hotel in Shanghai is not a particularly impressive one, but it is one of several in the city that has been targeted for purchase by the VN Group whose CEO, Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), is making his customary visit to scope them out. It's not going so well - as he's leaving the previous hotel, he comes upon Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu) vandalizing his car on behalf of a dumped friend (it turns out that there are a lot of black Audis in the garage) - and the notorious foodie is unimpressed by the six dishes room service sends up. Desperate to please, the hotel's general manager (Yo Yang) has a young but creative sous-chef prepare him a dish before he checks out at noon. Lu is impressed enough to stay and try more dishes, unaware that it's Shengnan - who has found a number of ways to inadvertently make his life difficult - that is cooking for him.

Like most romantic comedies, This Is Not What I Expected is built on the cast, with Takeshi Kaneshiro giving an especially hilarious performance as the wealthy food-lover. Most of his Chinese-language career has been somber dramas and historical epics, so it's a bit of a surprise to see him in a comedic role, but he brings a perfect combination of imperiousness and fussiness to Lu. Though it's something that should be seen in a lot of films of this genre, not many actors manage to plant a seed of being easily flustered within their pushiness, and it not only leads to getting a laugh where one might otherwise think "what a jerk!", but it lets a decent guy emerge later on when we need to buy that Lu and Shengnan might actually have something besides a mutual interest in good food.

Zhou Dongyou makes a fun complement, not letting eccentricity overwhelm her character's relaxed-but-intense creativity. She's more practiced at this sort of comedy, enough so that she can take a character designed to be eccentric in unlikely situations and find the spot where Shengnan is easy to relate to. Though she can pull off a big gag, she seldom seems screwy without a purpose, and there's fun understatement in how she takes her boyfriend dumping her (hurt, but not initially inclined to thinking it's anything but his problem) and a focus to how she handles cooking challenges that makes her more than the goofy pixie. Zhou and Kaneshiro make a fun pair whether doing physical comedy or genuine affection, and they're surrounded by people (and a lovable old pit bull) who can sell their half of a joke without seeming like they're trying to claw screen time away from the stars.

It's a bit of a relief that the food doesn't quite manage to do that. There's a certain peril to food movies, where something meant to trigger one's senses instead has characters narrating details of the taste and texture, while also carrying a lot of forced metaphorical weight. Director Derek Hui avoids that by not going in for full food porn, instead just making sure the meals get a nice presentation but eventually using them more to illustrate other things - that Lu has high standards, that Shengnan is not just capable but creative, or as a jumping-off point to show how Lu's interaction with food reflects him as a person. Impressive meals are not the structure or central metaphor here as they often are, but colorful ways to illustrate what else is going on.

The rest of what's going on is, in fact, a decent romantic comedy; he and the writers throw Kaneshiro and Zhou into a number of amusing situations, none of which snowball to complete comic disaster, but which often go off in odd directions. Not necessarily natural directions, but often the peculiarity works - both Lu and Shengnan have moments when the audience will wonder why they went in that direction, but there's usually a laugh in it, and the offbeat directions each tends to take helps sell their attraction being based on more than just a shared interest or looking good. It also leads to some really dumb manufactured conflict in the last act, although not the sort of ridiculous that gets one to check out.

That's par for the course - there's really no foolproof way to get from couples having a lot of entertaining friction to the point where audiences don't just believe in them getting together, but in their staying together in a frothy thing like this - and there more than enough cute bits to get past it. It's a light meal which occasionally puts a bit of unexpected flavor in familiar dishes, which isn't a bad menu for date night.

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originally posted: 05/09/17 09:49:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/07/17 Richard very good, worth seeing. Takeshi Kaneshiro gives his best performance since Red Cliff 4 stars
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Directed by
  Derek Hui

Written by
  Yuan Li
  Yimeng Xu

  Takeshi Kaneshiro
  Dongyu Zhou
  Yizhou Sun
  Mengyao Xi
  Tony Yang

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