Beware the Foreign Talent!
Thanks to You Are The Apple of My Eye, Taiwanese actress Michelle Chen has sprung into idol superstardom in this part of the world, the goddess in the eye of many male fans. Her first film since that phenomenal Giddens Ko semi-autobiography, The Soul of Bread will be her litmus test if she can draw in a sizable crowd of supporters on her own, but this light hearted romantic comedy doesn't anchor a strong storyline, relying on a plot that's fairly derivative though in some ways, relevant and identifiable with audiences here given that it centers around the key theme of competition, globally.
Set in a small Taiwanese town, the film centers around a family run bread bakery shop, where lead baker Gao Bing (Chen Han Tien) proposes to his long time girlfriend Ping (Michelle Chen), the daughter of his mentor, only for her to turn him down for his lack of couth and sincerity in proposing to her. Being given some time to mull over the proposal, things become complicated when Frenchman and renowned bread maker Brad (Anthony Neely) comes knocking at their door when he skips his fame and fortune to the exasperation of his fans in the Western baking world, retracing the steps that his late mom had taken, and becoming instantly smitten with Ping, and volunteers to learn some bakery skills after Ping's father (Liao Chun), who obliges for the gift of an expensive saxophone that he can use to show off amongst his band peers in the community club.
That's about the gist of the story, leading into a tussling romantic triangle between Ping, Gao Bing and Brad, with the choice firmly in the lady's hands. Directors Sean Kao and Lin Chun Yang adapts from their television series of the same name, and took their time to set up the multiple backgrounds for each of the main characters. With Ping, she yearns to go to Paris and is adamant in learning French for this purpose. She's the quintessential small town girl yearning for the bright lights of the big city, and Brad's presence only serves to stoke that flame of flight in her. As for Gao Bing, he's the small town boy with immense responsibilities that he's not about to give up on, and while he loves his lady, he finds it extremely tough to express that love explicitly and romantically, preferring to hide behind his gruff exterior. And Brad's the complete opposite, never fearing to reveal his emotions, and takes the town by storm with his good looks and baking skills, which reinvigorates the sleepy town. He's a little bit more complex, having come across with a mission to seek his maternal roots, before slowly allowing his true self to emerge, which may irk some fans because it's quite the about turn in character.
As always, comedy ensues each time someone goes overboard in expressing themselves, while Ping's father and brother almost stole the show with their extremely down to earth portrayal of simple folk with simple pleasures in life. The filmmakers went for the jugular to expand the storyline beyond the romantic triangle, such as introducing another budding romance potential between Ping's brother and the neighbourhood policewoman, that didn't get flesh out thoroughly, and another wasted opportunity was the hilarious dream sequences that Gao Bing will lapse into each time he tastes something that provides an inspiration, leading to ensemble song and dance moments that were top notch in choreography and slapstick. Even the rivalry in having a cook-off between the two bakers to the tune of Le Grand Chef was not as epic as meant to be, with moments in the film dedicated to delicious close ups of dough creations that boggle the mind and plays tricks on one's tastebuds and stomach,
Michelle Chen does what she does best, being that girl next door with that wholesome heart and image that any guy out there would want to pursue and bring home to meet mom. She plays the confused, hesitant Ping to perfection, with that amount of saccharine sweetness bound to melt more hearts than her turn in Giddens' film. But such is the role that it doesn't challenge her nor showcase expanded abilities, so here's waiting to see what her next project will be, if she would break away from a comfort zone and take on a role that's more challenging. Chen Han Tien doesn't have that movie matinee star looks, but possesses this earnestness in his charisma that simply allowed one to empathize how he's slowly losing grip on his life due to competition, where once he was the town's hero, and that status under threat, while Anthony Neely plays his Brad with the overt confidence that comes with the role of an internationally renowned baker, but prone to emotional outbursts later on especially when riled by Gao Bing, together with a revelation of true intent that tied in with his seeking out the bread that his mom had once fallen in favour with.
But perhaps what's most strikingly close to us here is the film's examination on the impact of globalization. One cannot deny the anxiety felt by many here with regards to the import of foreign talent, and this film surprisingly addresses that issue quite head on, with Brad epitomizing talent from overseas who doesn't think twice about sinking his roots here, albeit temporarily only, in order to take over jobs, introduce fresh ideas, and to woo the land's beautiful women. And he makes it quite clear about that too. And the simple girl's getting swept off her feet by promises (of Paris), and romance, and having to choose between a local who's bogged down by various responsibilities in family, friends and to keep the local shop going, and that of an overseas dude who's loaded (check out that BMW) and is a television personality with his own programme, and fairly carefree in order to spend significant time in wooing. This film should gain some traction and interest especially when offering a little escapism as to who she'll end up with, either to stroke that nationalistic pride, or become a quitter.
Despite plot loopholes abound especially with the liberal massaging of timeline, perhaps the worst thing that had happened to the film in Singapore, is the unfortunate, and badly done, Mandarin dubbing over the Taiwanese Hokkien lines especially spoken by Gao Bing and his mentor/Ping's father. It's one thing when an obvious dub is used over an entire line, and another issue altogether which points to disrespect and an insult to a paying audience when such poor dubs make it as and when it's preferred, often mid sentence, to try and mask out vulgarities, or to reduce the duration of non-Mandarin moments in the movie. It's an irrational, archaic guideline that has no place in art appreciation, nor appreciation in the way real people in the real world speak, so I say the sooner we learn to grow up and stop this nonsense, the better. You don't ask a friend from Taiwan to speak strictly Mandarin at all times when in Singapore, or to stick within a time quota, do you?