Tang Wei scores big at the mainland box office with this comedy drama about a spoilt mistress who must hide out in the US and reconcile her lifestyle when she becomes pregnant with her lover's child.
All has been forgiven, it seems, as Tang Wei - once banned from making films in China after her role in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution - has sat comfortably at the top of the box office charts in China for four consecutive weeks with her latest film, Finding Mr. Right.
Shot almost entirely in the USA, the film stars Tang as Jiajia, mistress of rich Beijing businessman Mr. Zhong, who is shipped off to Seattle when it is discovered she is pregnant. In order to avoid a scandal back home, Jiajia must have her baby in secret. She is booked into an illegal rest home run by Mrs Huang (Elaine Jin), where she immediately reveals herself to be spoilt, stubborn and incredibly high maintenance.
Clearly given unlimited access to her lover's finances, Jiajia is despicably materialistic and only knows how to throw money at problems until she gets her way. Needless to say this results in clashes with the other mothers-to-be (Hai Qing and Mai Hong Mei), but it is their driver, Frank (Wu Xiubo) who must shoulder the worst of Jiajia's demands, as he is cajoled into ferrying her around town and acting as interpreter.
Over time it is revealed that Frank is also a qualified doctor, but quit to look after his daughter, while his now-estranged wife pursued her career. Despite their differing outlooks and personalities, they begin to develop feelings for each other, but it is at that moment that Zhong cuts Jiajia off and insists she returns to China.
There's nothing surprising in Xue Xiao Lue's script, and events play out exactly as expected. What is interesting, however, is how the film portrays China and the US, and the comparisons drawn between the two countries. At a time when China is actively luring its overseas-educated graduates back home, and quashing the notion that it's better to live abroad, the film paints a very muddled picture of China's current status.
Jiajia's lifestyle in Beijing is shown to be luxurious, affluent, but also relatively inert. She has wealth, but not happiness, and is only ever seen to be alone. On the other hand, the US might look less glamorous, but there is a community, constant interaction, and a warmth - admittedly only with other Chinese immigrants, but in spite of the gloomy Seattle weather. When Jiajia is first introduced, she also confesses a profound love for New York City - citing Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle as her romantic ideal (which, in turn, influences the film's finale).
While we would expect the film to prove her wrong, to show China as accepting and understanding of her situation, and ultimately the place she really should be living, that's not how the story plays out. China offers financial success but little else, while America is still the land of opportunity. That said, interaction with the Americans themselves seems to be actively discouraged.
The film is also reluctant to outright disregard the notion that money buys happiness. True, it is not until Jiajia is cut off financially and forced to fend for herself that she begins improving as a person and finding self-fulfillment, but it's not a decision she made herself, but rather one that was forced upon her. She is shown to be a survivor, but still needs a man - and a successful one at that - in order to be truly happy.
What makes the film in any way entertaining is Tang Wei. Even though Jiajia is incredibly obnoxious and behaves deplorably for large parts of the film, we stick with her, and that is solely due to Tang's eminently likable screen presence. Wu Xiubo is also good value, as the older, world weary love interest who has given up on success and happiness in order to be a responsible parent. He makes the perfect foil for Tang to bounce off, berate and ultimately beguile, and their onscreen chemistry feels effortless and genuine.
On the one hand it is surprising that the film has done so well in China. It is built around an out-of-favour actress and depicts the country as an uncaring, brand-obsessed mausoleum populated solely by materialistic, crass and dishonest people. On the other hand, China has proved in recent years with the successes of films like Love is Not Blind and Lost in Thailand that it is a market hungry for contemporary comedy, and Finding Mr. Right delivers consistently on the laughter and romance. While some of the film's themes might be muddled, one message is coming through loud and clear: China has forgiven Tang Wei.
Review originally published in April 2013. The film opens in theaters in Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York on Friday, November 8. For more information, visit the official Facebook page of distributor China Lion Entertainment.