Sylvia Chang Capsule Reviews

Sylvia Chang Capsule Reviews

Passion (1986) — May 11, 2018

When George Lam’s mustache is so sexy that even a lifetime of friendship can’t keep Sylvia Chang and Cora Miao from both falling in love with him.

Sisters of the World Unite (1991) — May 11, 2018

Very pleasant Lunar New Year style movie from Sylvia Chang. Or Maisy Tsui, whoever that is. She gets the on-screen credit as director (with Chang as producer and co-writer), but the IMDb credits Chang as well as co-director and this is Tsui’s only IMDb credit. She has a couple of credits on the hkmdb, where she's listed as Maisy Choi Mei-si, as planner for Happy Ghost V and assistant production manager on a couple of 1982 films, Lonely Fifteen and Once Upon a Rainbow.

Anyway, Chang and Sally Yeh play sisters who break up with their significant others and try the single life. Chang walks out on husband John Sham and Yeh on her married boyfriend, Derek Yee. Chang has a series of romantic misadventures (one of which would get ripped off almost exactly in a 30 Rock episode) while Yeh starts dating a younger man. The movie is packed with cameos (check out Johnnie To as an astrologer and Kenny Bee popping by for a Shanghai Blues reunion). There’s a lot more visual oddity than a typical Chang film (filming her watching TV from inside the TV, for example). Maybe that’s to Maisy Tsui’s credit.

Mary from Beijing (1992) — May 09, 2018

Sylvia Chang writes and directs, Gong Li and Kenny Bee star, Christopher Doyle shoots. It’s fine, but with all this talent it probably should have been better.

As it is, it mostly just serves to remind of better, tangentially similar films: A Fishy Story, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Full Moon in New York, among others.

Siao Yu (1995) — May 12, 2018

Began life as an Ang Lee project, but when he got offered Sense and Sensibility, Sylvia Chang took it over. René Liu, in her film debut, plays a Taiwanese immigrant in New York who works in a sweatshop and takes classes while her boyfriend, also in the US illegally, works in a fish market and goes to school. They pay $10,000 to Hill Street Blues’s Daniel J. Travanti so he’ll marry Liu and thus get her citizenship. It’s basically Green Card, but instead of immigration being a problem for boorish French dudes, it’s about actual immigrants and their exploitation at the hands of American industry.

It’s also blessedly free of romance between the old white guy and the young Chinese girl. A fact which their significant others (the Taiwanese boyfriend and Travanti’s boozy, oft-absent wife) can’t seem to comprehend. There isn’t much in the way of plot, but is at its best in capturing the dark spaces of an older, dirtier New York, especially Travanti’s gloomy, ramshackle apartment and its contrast with the immigrants’ home, which appears to be the kitchen floor in an apartment shared with at least four other people.

Tonight Nobody Goes Home (1996) — May 12, 2018

Sylvia Chang’s comic domestic melodrama grows more expansive, building on the Lunar New Year-lite approach of Sisters of the World Unite to tell a multi-generational story of love. The dad from Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (Lung Sihung) plays a horny dentist who has an affair with the woman who runs his granddaughter’s preschool. His daughter, René Liu, is a bank teller who is wavering in her decision to marry Jordan Chan, an insurance salesman with a sideline as an extra in action movies (he gets killed many times). Lung’s son, Winston Chao, is a degenerate gambler and club owner who keeps losing money, especially when his club’s star gigolo (Alex To), runs off with his mom (Gua Ah-lei), on her own now after the dentist moves in with his girlfriend.

The home splits apart (for a while no one seems to be living there) but then comes back together in a better, wiser configuration. It’s standard stuff, but done with real grace and humor, and the performances, especially from Gua (she played Sylvia Chang’s mother in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman), are outstanding. The first half of the film is preoccupied with the father figure, his pursuit of the younger woman played for laughs as he callously breaks apart his marriage. But then Gua takes over and the film deftly finds real emotional resonance to balance out the comedy.

Continuing the trend from Sisters, Chang is more free in her style than her more austere early work (1986’s Passion is basically a New Taiwan Cinema film where Chang’s later style is much more mainstream). Though in this case the oddball framings aren’t as gimmicky. She adds some unusual quick flashback-type edits (often Lung’s reveries of women in swimming pools) as comedic and dramatic punctuation. On Chan’s bedroom wall are posters for Speed and Batman Forever.

Tempting Heart (1999) — August 14, 2014

Sylvia Chang makes a movie about Sylvia Chang writing a movie about a failed romance that Sylvia Chang or “Sylvia Chang” may have had with someone who isn’t quite Kaneshiro Takeshi. A span-the-decades romance along the lines of Comrades, Almost a Love Story, with the two lovers occasionally resurfacing in each others’ lives some years down the line. 20, 30 40 pulls kind of the same trick, except it’s about three different women (or at least three different actresses) at three different stages of their life (20s, 30s, and 40s, of course). Sylvia Chang has a temporally expansive view of love.

Added May 13, 2018:
Not sure if Sylvia Chang has one single masterpiece, a film that best encapsulates everything that’s great about her as a director. But if she does this is probably it.

Or it’s 20 30 40. Or maybe Murmur of the Hearts.

Princess D (2002) — February 8, 2018

Weird Science meets Millennium Mambo.

Daniel Wu plays a video game designer who meets and instantly falls for a bartender played by Angelica Lee. He decides to construct his new game around her image, in contravention to the Lara Croftian designs of his fellow programmers. The real-life Lee has a whole host of family problems: dad’s in jail, mom’s gone nuts, little brother is a punk, and she has a massive debt owed to drug-dealing gangsters. Wu has a family too: Edison Chen as a kid brother who plays around in chat rooms but can’t make a real-life connection with a woman (for some reason) and Anthony Wong, as their dance instructor father.

As is always the case in a Sylvia Chang movie, there’s a lot going on here. She’s one of the cleverest filmmakers working today and the film is bursting with possibilities. But Chang always subordinates idea to emotion, to the feeling of a moment, and as such her films can tend to feel disconnected, not fully coherent, while at the same time being intoxicating minute-to-minute.

20 30 40 (2004) — August 14, 2014

I suspect this might be the film Nicole Holofcener’s been failing to make for the last 20 years. But that’s probably underrating it.

Added May 13, 2018:
Anthony Wong’s best look, as a member of Matt Dillon’s band in Singles.

Run Papa Run (2008) — May 15, 2018

Maybe the messiest movie Sylvia Chang ever made. Oddball comedy, lots of wig acting, over the top sentimentality, plotting that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and a whole lot of famous person cameos. Louis Koo plays a Triad boss who falls in love and becomes a father and goes to great lengths to keep his little girl from knowing what he does for a living. Except, you know, stop being a Triad boss. It’s got a lot of energy, but not much purpose.

Chang would do the offbeat, quasi-magical family melodrama thing a lot better in Murmur of the Hearts.

Murmur of the Hearts (2015) — October 12, 2015

Sylvia Chang is terrific, as usual, in Mountains May Depart, even better than she is in Johnnie To’s Office, which she co-adapted from her own play. But that’s not all she’s had for us in 2015–she also directed Murmur of the Hearts, like Mountains a family melodrama taking place across multiple time periods. It stars Isabella Leong, making a long-awaited return to the screen after several years in retirement following her marriage in 2008 (don’t miss her in Pang Ho-cheung’s Isabella from 2006). She plays a young woman dating an aspiring boxer. The boxer has vision problems, and Isabella, an artist, is haunted by memories of her parents, who split up when she was a child, which also separated her from her brother. We also meet the brother, now a tour guide on the small island off the coast of Taiwan where they grew up.

Chang deftly weaves together the characters’ present lives and memories of their parents with a splash of magic realism in the form of a mermaid and a quite fashionable ghost/bartender. It’s a more conventional art house movie than Mountains, in that it’s the kind of Taiwanese film that seems rather inexplicable for the first 40 minutes or so and, as everything becomes clear and all the various connections are resolved, becomes deeply moving as the story comes together with a satisfying click. It isn’t as meta-cinematic as the other Chang-directed films I’ve seen (the very good Tempting Heart and 20 30 40), but it’s warm and sweet and quite lovely, a nice flipside to the acidic Office.

Love Education (2017) — February 28, 2018

Sylvia Chang’s mom dies, and so she wants to dig up her dad’s remains so they can be buried together. Problem is, dad’s body has been in his hometown for the last 20 years, where he’s been watched over by his first wife, and she doesn’t want to give him up.

A familiar theme from Chang’s generation of directors in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China: the disruptions on the family wrought by the chaos of the mid-20th century. Neither Chang nor the old woman can track down the proof of marriage they need to make the case that they should have custody of the body: the files have disappeared, everything has disappeared.

Contrast comes from Chang’s daughter (played by Lang Yueting), a TV producer who initially sees this conflict in terms of drama and ratings. She films the women fighting and gets the show she works on, which seems to be some kind of flashy Oprah/Maury type thing, to do a story on it. She’s also got relationship issues of her own, ones which eerily echo but in important ways differ from those of her grandparents.

Like many (most) of Chang’s films, this one expands outward as it twists its central conflict, embracing multiple points-of-view and characters, ones whose dramas only tangentially involve the main story yet resonate with it perfectly. From Tian Zhuangzhuang as Chang’s husband and his possible flirtation with an (age-appropriate) student to Lang’s boyfriend’s ex, an aspiring singer who totes around a kid that may be the boyfriend’s son.