Berlinale: Jeremy Irons derailed in 'Night Train to Lisbon,' but Arvin Chen charms again
At no point is it made clear why Raimund is so possessed by this disconnected memoir, given that Greg Latter and Ulrich Herrmann’s windy script flattens all its political charge and complexity into a rather passionless love triangle. August even achieves the considerable feat of making Lisbon look dowdy under the overlit glare of Filip Zumbrunn’s cinematography. Lena Olin, incidentally, pops up near the end to perform pretty much the exact same explicatory task she was assigned in “The Reader,” principally making you wonder how that project ever escaped the Europudding refrigerator.
On to gladder tidings. Some of you may recall that Arvin Chen’s “Au Revoir, Taipei,” a beguiling romantic caper that I first encountered (albeit without subtitles) at the Berlinale three years ago, wound up on my 2010 Top 10 list. Sadly, the Taiwanese-American director’s debut feature never secured a US release, but fostered enough goodwill on the festival circuit to generate considerable anticipation among the Berlin crowd for his follow-up, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” (B). If the result is a shade less accomplished and appealing than its pitch-perfect predecessor, that seems a fair price to pay for its increased structural ambition, as it tackles weightier thematic territory and a broader spread of characters without losing the airy whimsy that appears to be Chen’s stock-in-trade.
Indeed, I feared that quality may have tipped alarmingly into tweeness as the pre-credit sequence culminated with a character floating skyward, Mary Poppins-style, on a spring breeze and an umbrella. But it’s an odd, anomalous lapse: while other, more integrated, flights of fancy include one character’s imaginary conversations with the star of her favorite soap opera and another’s karaoke-bar segue into a fantasy musical number, Chen’s fleet feet remain otherwise earthbound.
Where “Au Revoir, Taipei” seemed equally informed by the stylized playgrounds of Stanley Donen’s Hollywood and Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong, it’s Chen’s latest that really betrays his background as an apprentice to the late Edward Yang, both in the narrative intricacy of its relationships and the democratic equanimity with which he untangles them. Principally the story of a closeted gay family man surprising even himself as he slips out of the closet, the film is remarkable for the care and constructive humor with which it handles every affected party; no one character is a signposted stand-in for Freedom, Tolerance or Prejudice, just as no one’s behaviour is entirely right or unreasonable.
At the heart of the narrative is a complicated question: if hardly any relationship is perfect, can you be happily married outside the realm of physical desire? Wei-chung (Richie Jen), a mild-mannered optician (hey, there is a link to “Night Train to Lisbon after all) living in Taipei, comes close: an adoring father to a young son, he also loves his gentle, mildly depressive wife of nine years, Feng (Taiwanese pop star Mavis Fan), as much as is humanly possible without particularly wishing to have sex with her. Increasingly antsy for a second child, she’s beginning to sense a drift. Meanwhile, after years of suppressing all sexual urges whatsoever, a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, out-and-proud wedding photographer Stephen (“Au Revoir, Taipei” standout Lawrence Ko, once more the chief comic element here), Wei-chung is lured back onto the gay scene he’d flirted with as a bachelor – and falls hard for receptive customer Thomas (Wong Ka-lok).
An abundance of sub-plots fleshes out the running theme of imperfect loves: as Feng increasingly loses her grip at work, her inordinately forgiving boss pines for her from afar, while Wei-chung’s spoiled, flighty sister (Mandy) breaks off her engagement to her doting dullard of a fiancé (Stone), who in turn finds solace in Stephen’s badminton-playing gay wolf pack.
It’s not exactly “La Ronde,” and some of the threads verge of the insipid, but this distinctly melancholy romantic comedy grows more courageously conflicted as it strolls along, building to a fresh, eminently fair denouement in which no one gets quite what they want in quite the way they thought they wanted it. As he demonstrated more effervescently (and with more technical verve) in his debut -- and in tune with the titular song, touchingly sung by Fan in the aforementioned doo-wop fantasy sequence – Chen is a romantic at heart, but one capable of compromise.