Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review – What Women Want

May 19, 2011

What Women Want – China, 2011

If you were to ask average movie fans which remake they were clamoring for, I doubt they would have answered Nancy Myers’ 2000 romantic-comedy What Women Want. The original worked primarily because of the chemistry of its two leads, Helen Hunt and Mel Gibson, despite the fact that it was about a man who uses his insight into the thoughts of women primarily for personal and professional gain. I remember thinking that Gibson’s character didn’t really deserve to get the girl in the end, but that’s what the genre calls for, and that’s what the film delivered. Now just eleven years later, we get the remake, with film legends Gong Li and Andy Lau stepping into the lead roles and director Daming Chen behind the camera. Suffice to say, the setting for the film has been changed as well, and this gives it a freshness that an American remake would sorely lack. However, those looking for insight into the inner feelings of women in Hong Kong may be slightly disappointed by what they see.

In the film, Andy Lau plays an overly chauvinistic ad man named Sun Zi Gang, whose idea of a good ad is one that features scantily clad women surrounding a man who holds a cigar and strikes a pose that seems designed to convey his mastery of the world around him. It’s a delusion, yet one that Sun seems to genuinely believe people connect with. In an early scene, we see that Sun is equally inappropriate in his daily interaction with the women in his department, all of whom he flirts with shamelessly. They respond to his unprofessional conduct is the only way they know how to: with smiles, polite comments, and the occasional expression of appreciation. Really, how else would we expect them to act? They need their jobs.

Sun is expecting to be promoted, and his staff has already dutifully prepared the “surprise” party for him. He is shocked then when the position of Executive Creative Director is given to an outsider because the company thinks it needs new blood. As Mr. Dong, the head of the company, puts it, they used to be able to rely almost exclusively on alcohol and tobacco for revenue, and now the majority of customers are women. Therefore, a woman’s input has become vital to the company’s success. Enter Li Yilong (Gong Li), whose first order of business is to give each male member of her staff a box of ladies products to try on at home. The goal is to for the men to get in touch with their anima or feminine side. Later, wearing black stockings, red high heeled shoes, lipstick, and black nail polish, Sun accidentally electrocutes himself in the bathroom, and when he awakens in the hospital, he’s alarmed to learn that he can hear women’s thoughts.

It is here that the film may make viewers a bit uncomfortable, for the thoughts of the women Sun comes in contact with are for the most part not the kind one would expect to have a dramatic, life-changing effect on someone. No doubt some viewers will find many of them downright sexist, for from what we hear in the film, one could easily surmise that most women are rather mean-spirited, especially toward other women, often inwardly commenting negatively on everything from their clothing to their body shape. And when they’re not dwelling on these things, their minds are preoccupied by such trivial things as shopping, pimples, food, and guys. In one scene, we hear the thoughts of Sun’s teenage daughter Doudou and her friends during a sleepover, and all they do is complain about the lack of food, comment rudely on the unfashionable nature of Doudou’s wardrobe, and call Sun names. Such comments do nothing to make Doudou seem like a sympathetic character, which she should be, seeing as how the film is trying to portray Sun as the insensitive one.

Nicely contrasting with Sun is Li, a woman who has devoted so much of her adult life to proving herself professionally that her only means of meeting members of the opposite sex is through chat rooms, where she is known as Panther. The man she eventually arranged a date with goes by 007. The evening is a disaster from the get-go, and in a rather embarrassing moment, she awkwardly begins to confess to a colleague that she doesn’t know her date’s real name. It turns out to be Peter, and later during a disastrous impromptu group dinner, he admits to having an ulterior motive to being there, which makes things even more awkward for Li. I suppose some will question how realistic it is for a character played by Gong Li to ever be without a date, but in fact, it’s not a date that Li is after. It is love, understanding, and a career, which all together can be a pretty tall order.

What Women Want never properly uses the length it has been given. At almost two hours, it seems both too long and somewhat awkwardly structured. It is lacking that one great scene that would clearly explain why Li and Sun find themselves falling in love. I also found myself wondering whether someone who would give you everything you wanted not because it was in their nature to do so but because he had an unfair advantage would truly be a good match. Sure, it worked in the end for Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but that was only after repeated failures and a metamorphosis that was quite impressive. Sun only has one moment that would seem to come close to this, but oddly it doesn’t even involve Li directly.

One of the problems with What Women Want is that it often aims for comedy when it should aim for insight, and the comedy often comes at the expense of the plot, slowing it down and distracting it from more important elements of the story. In addition, there should be more to Sun’s advice to his daughter than a few words on caution about the intentions of immature boys her age. The film is also too aware of the star power of its cast and makes the amateurish mistake of reminding the audience just who these characters look like. The film is more successful when it focuses on the relationship between Sun and his father. It is one that the old adage like father like son sums up pretty well, and that’s not a comparison that either one of them gets much joy out of. There’s also a touching subplot involving Sun’s effect on a young lady who he doesn’t take as seriously as he should. The resolution to their storyline is appropriate and somewhat moving, despite being a bit overly dramatic. In addition, there’s an interesting conversation between Li and Sun towards the end of the film that takes it in a slightly different direction than the original. It’s a welcome change.

In the end, What Women Want is an adequate remake that offers a few insights into the thoughts of women on the other side of the Pacific. While the script could have been stronger, the performances of Li and Lau help viewers stay connected to the characters and the situations they find themselves in. Chengru Li gives a nice performance as Sun’s boss, Mr. Dong, and while the role of Peter is not likely to be considered very challenging for him, it’s always nice to see Russell Wong on screen. I must say that I was not a huge fan of the original What Women Want, and I can’t say I’m much of a fan of the remake either. However, I will say that the film works just enough to make it worth watching. I will repeat that – just enough. (on Blu-ray in Region A; in theatres in Taiwan tomorrow)

2 and a half stars

*What Women Want is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

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