Director: Derek Hui
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhou Dongyu, Ming Xi, Tony Yang, Chiling Lin Chi-Ling, John Chang Kuo-Chu
Runtime: 1 hr 47 mins
Released By: Clover Films and Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 11 May 2017
Synopsis: Adapted from renowned web novelist Lan Bai Se's A Long Time Coming. Does difference breed contempt or fondness? The Lu family motto is ‘Being loathed leads to solitude and solitude keeps the mind clear.’ Callous and eccentric Lu Jin, President of an international hotel group, is every bit the man one loves to hate. Gu Shengnan, sous chef of Rosebud Hotel, is no more a social darling than him ? confused, careless and unkempt, she is hardly what most men consider an object of desire. Lu Jin checks into a hotel to conduct acquisition research. He is dissatisfied with everything he sees, but a last-minute dish whipped by Gu Shengnan blows his mind. He starts ordering dishes from her and she starts cooking for him. The two don’t meet in person but they share a mutual appreciation for each other. Yet in reality, they’re arch-rivals whose every encounter is a catastrophe, until their identities are revealed by accident… In the tug-of-war between contempt and fondness, which side will win?
At its core, ‘This is Not What I Expected’ is about two diametrically opposite individuals who start off butting heads with each other but end up falling in love.
On one hand is Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the CEO of a multibillion international company called VN Group who flies around the world evaluating hotels for their worthiness before deciding whether to acquire them or not.
On the other is Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu), a junior sous-chef at the boutique hotel Rosebud in Shanghai where Lu Jin and his subservient assistant Richard Meng (Sun Yizhou) has just checked into for business (not pleasure, mind you).
It isn’t just their statuses that are different; their personalities are just as dissimilar – Lu Jin is a tightly wound, clinical individual who prides himself at being a perfectionist; whereas Shengnan is by and large a free-wheeling lark whose blithe attitude to life is only disturbed by her recent breakup with the hotel’s (douche-bag) general manager Cheng Zixian (a very suave-looking Tony Yang).
As much as scriptwriters Li Yuan and Xu Yimeng draw from the oldest trick in the rom-com playbook, their adaptation of renowned web novelist Lan Bai Se’s ‘A Long Time Coming’ is no means stale. Oh no, the result is quite the contrary in fact. Mixing the familiar elements of an ‘opposites attract’ rom-com with the ingredients of a culinary comedy has proved quite the inspiration, and even if it does feel familiar on the whole, there’s no denying that veteran editor Derek Hui’s directorial debut still tastes fresh, delightful and often hilarious.
Benefiting immensely from his years working with some of the best in the industry including Peter Chan himself, Teddy Chan and even Chen Kaige, Hui demonstrates confidence, discipline and clarity right from the get-go, displaying none of the shortcomings that usually plague first-time directors.
That is clear right from the get-go: within the prologue, he establishes succintly not only Lu Jin’s exacting standards in the food he eats, but also the businesslike approach with which he handles staff performance, telling an under-performing senior manager seated across a long table that he is fired. And then without letting up, Hui stages the first meet-cute between Lu Jin and Shengnan in a classic case of mistaken identity, as the former catches the latter vandalizing the hood of his car to avenge her heartbroken female buddy Xu Zhaodi (Meng Xi) and only agrees not to call the police after she lets him humiliate her, i.e. by writing on her forehead the telephone number of the company she is supposed to call to fix the damage she caused to his car.
Oh yes, there is a precision to the way Hui approaches his scenes, such that each makes its point without outlasting its welcome. That same exactness also ensures the movie remains pacey – from the point Lu Jin steps into the Rosebud criticizing the customer service, room soundproofing and Michelin-starred food in turn; to his enchantment with the last-minute dish prepared by Shengnan and each one of her exquisitely plated dishes thereafter; to the series of encounters between Lu Jin and Shengnan that reinforce his annoyance towards her before he discovers she is the chef he has been enamored with; and last but not least to the pranks he plays on her before she realizes that he already knows her identity.
There is plenty of screwball humour in between: Lu Jin ending up in lock-up after stuffing a drunk Shengnan, who falls onto on his balcony, into a suitcase; Lu Jin instructing the duty officer at the police station how to prepare a perfect bowl of instant noodles; Lu Jin ending up with a horribly swollen face after Shengnan lets loose a swarm of bees when retrieving an umbrella up in a tree; and last but not least Lu Jin forced to agree to record a series of festival greetings for a pompous online celebrity’s video channel so that the latter will take down embarrassing pictures of him in lock-up. Quite impressively, the laughs to gags ratio is almost one-to-one, which is extremely rare for any comedy.
Before the madcap antics turn repetitive, the second half switches gears for intimacy and even pathos. Over a nicely edited montage, we see Lu Jin turning up unannounced at Shengnan’s messy but homely apartment where she lives with her dog named ‘Boss’, treating her as his personal chef, turning her place into his own home, and in the process discovering a much more human side to himself that he has been repressing. There is both sweetness and tenderness in a whimsical sequence where both hallucinate rain after having some poisonous blowfish for steamboat, and end up taking an umbrella out for a walk around the neighbourhood and on board a bus through Shanghai’s beautifully lit streets. A late twist that sees Lin Chiling emerge as Lu Jin’s personal chef is somewhat under-developed, but still makes the point of reinforcing how food has been a special bond between their hearts.
And as a final note, it is admirable that Hui stays true to the quirks and eccentricities of his characters as well as their relationship during the heartfelt finale. That same consistency extends to Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhou Dongyu’s performances, so that we not only believe that their characters are authentic but are also invested emotionally in them.
True to its title, ‘This is Not What I Expected’ is an unexpectedly enjoyable rom-com – the jokes land mostly where they should, the romance is sweet but never cloying, and the presentation is brisk, lively and engaging. It also boasts a pair of leads with sharp comic timing and great chemistry that you’ll miss hanging out with the minute it’s over, and with the venerable Peter Ho-sun Chan and his regular partner Jojo Hui as producers, you can be assured of a finale that is touching, poignant and genuine. Just be sure not to go into it hungry, because the wonderfully delectable food porn shots within will make sure that it isn’t just your heart that will be stirred.
(A perfect combination of screwball humour, heartfelt intimacy and infectious chemistry, this ‘opposites attract’ rom-com would most certainly be ‘Michelin-grade’ excellence in the culinary world)
Review by Gabriel Chong