I really have to work at not reading enough to spoil the movies I'm interested in before I've seen them. It's worth the effort: I don't want someone else's opinion to color my first reaction, and I hate knowing what's coming next because some reviewer outlined too much of the plot. But I feel like I'm constantly battling the barrage of publicity filmmakers and distributors want you to see, and I don't always win. Sometimes I don't get to be surprised enough by a film because I know too much about what's in it. And sometimes a clever publicity hook reels me into a movie that's not really for me.
That happened yesterday with Sophie's Revenge, a self-consciously Hollywood-style romantic comedy from China that's part of this year's New York Asian Film Festival. Whoever wrote the blurb for the festival's website got me with this: "You need to know: the conspiracy is real. 20 years ago, American film distributors secretly met with the CIA and were told that it was their patriotic duty to convince audiences that China was hell on earth. To that end they agreed to only import Chinese movies about unwashed orphans riding in the backs of rusty trucks through industrial hellscapes populated by unwed mothers sitting in the dirt and crying over their abortions."
They're exaggerating, of course: The NYAFF has always been largely about giving earnest joylessness a good kick in the head. But they have a point. I've fallen in love with several recent movies by Jia Zhang-ke, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and other Chinese directors, but none of them has exactly made me want to sign up for a cruise down the Yangtze. So I thought it would be fun to see a piece of silly Chinese escapism.
But lightweight escapism is only fun if it's light on its feet, and Sophie's Revenge is pretty flatfooted. Zhang Ziyi, who gave herself the title role (she produced the movie too) is loaded with charisma, but even she couldn't get me to root for Sophie's harebrained scheme to avenge herself on the fiancé who dumped her for another woman. The problem's in the script or the editing, or maybe both, which make it glaringly obvious from early on that Sophie's plan is misguided and that her real soul mate is right there beside her, so her single-minded focus on revenge makes her look either hopelessly stupid or obnoxiously self-absorbed—and unappealingly childish.
I probably could have forgiven even that if the comedy had been sharper or the romance more appealing (I'd like to see what Pedro Almodóvar would do with this premise), but there's a canned feel to it all, from Sophie's Sex and the City-fabulous bitchy/glamorous girlfriends to her Bridget Jones-style penchant for talking like an empowered feminist but acting like a girlish klutz.
Well, I guess China's entitled to its own cut-and-paste rom-coms. And I'm entitled not to like them.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.