A Caucasian French actor gets in touch with his faux-Asian roots, as well as his deepest feelings, in “Augustin, King of Kung-Fu,” a tenderly played and inventively lensed little gem from helmer Anne Fontaine (“Dry Cleaning”). Anyone unwilling to warm to Augustin himself — the diligent, somewhat ethereal central character of Fontaine’s hourlong “Augustin” (Cannes 1995) — will be tough to win over. But this quirky and carefully layered venture about living as an exile in one’s own country has a bittersweet heft that entertains in the moment and lingers in retrospect, signaling modest offshore sales.
Augustin (Jean-Chretien Sibertin-Blanc) is an unfailingly cordial yet slightly gauche type who works mostly as a movie extra. He trains for a career in martial arts flicks by tape-recording soundtracks of chopsockies off the screen at a local theater and practicing at home to the thwacks.
Inspired by the vision of an elderly Asian man who advises him to go “to the land of warrior monks,” but realizing the real China is too far away, Augustin packs his possessions on his trusty bicycle and cycles across Paris to Chinatown. Exploring a city within a city, he moves into the Hotel Shanghai (oblivious to the fact that it rents rooms by the hour) and talks his way into an apprenticeship in a Chinese tchotchke shop whose star salesman is the sexually ambiguous Rene (Darry Cowl).
Formal and emotionally self-sufficient, Augustin can’t bear to touch or be touched — which slows his progress when he signs up for martial arts lessons. But his life is gradually changed by friendship with Rene and his treatments from Chinese acupuncturist Ling (Maggie Cheung), for whom Augustin is her first non-Asian patient. He also comes into contact with Boutinot (Bernard Campan), who teaches French to Asians and is passionately interested in Chinese literature.
Pic’s considerable humor is born of deadpan incongruities, conveyed via splendid comic timing. Hong Kong star Cheung, who learned French for the role, is excellent as the acupuncturist and Cowl, an elder statesman of comedy and vet of 149 films, nails a touching mixture of experience and youthful energy in the role of Rene. Sibertin-Blanc’s reserved oddball charm makes Augustin’s emotional awakening and sudden discovery of longing and heartache especially rich.
Pic’s production design, starting with the funny opening credits, contributes seamlessly to the distinctive, slightly melancholy tone. Assured lensing sometimes emphasizes formal compositions but is more often intimate and handheld. Music is unobtrusive and sweet.