Review: ‘Lunch with Charles’

There's a lot of bittersweet charm and a fair amount of filler in "Lunch With Charles," the first-ever co-pro between Hong Kong and Canada, one of its major trading partners. This romantic comedy with multicultural undertones could do some biz in urban areas, but it needs to trim a little fat before being properly served.

There’s a lot of bittersweet charm and a fair amount of filler in “Lunch With Charles,” the first-ever co-pro between Hong Kong and Canada, one of its major trading partners. Self-distribbed pic played a couple of weeks in Vancouver before hitting the fest circuit in late March, with debut at Edmonton’s Local Heroes event. This romantic comedy with multicultural undertones could do some biz in urban areas, but it needs to trim a little fat before being properly served.

The “Lunch” title refers to the misapprehensions of Tong (Sean Lau), a struggling Hong Kong musician and reluctant real estate maven who pictures wife April (Theresa Lee) dining with all manner of pushy white guys. Actually, she’s been toiling away for three years at a promo job in Vancouver, waiting for him to get off his hot pot and head over.

Tong finally arrives, but it’s just as April heads into the Canadian interior with her half-Chinese assistant (Francoise Yip) and their new client, an Irish beer maker (Tom Scholte) intent on signing a Celtic rock band to help push his swill in the New World. The hesitant emigre soon gets lost, but is taken in by a B&B-running couple, conflicted Buddhist Matthew (Nicholas Lea) and former singer Natasha (Bif Naked).

The latter is just about ready to fly their hippie nest. Turns out she used to be part of said band, currently tuning up near Lake Louise. So when she gets an invitation from their manager, who just happens to be named Charles, she heads off for Banff.

So does everyone else. Most of the movie then consists of two-handers, largely in cars. There’s much attractive use of Western Canada’s wide-open spaces, but the foreground palaver, which belabors the obvious, gets claustrophobic.

Subplots, when they occur, resolve themselves quickly and without much drama. And the heat hinted at between the various leads stays way too polite.

In her first sustained role, real-life rocker Bif Naked acquits herself well. Slightly bland Lea is OK with Lee, an appealing Edmontonian who struggles with her character’s Hong Kong accent, and the supporting players are inventive with helmer-scripter Michael Parker’s narrowly defined material. Canto-pop music is effective in score, but could have been better integrated with Canuck settings.

What gives this thing soul, and a modicum of B.O. potential (at least where Chinese populations live), is time spent with Lau, an introspective thesp with considerable charisma. Think Chow Yun-Fat’s sober visage topped by Benicio Del Toro’s playful eyebrows, and you get some idea of his screen presence. It’s not hard to imagine his people soon doing lunch in Southern California.

Lunch with Charles

Canada-Hong Kong

Production

A Holiday Pictures presentation of a Foreign Exchange Films, Newfull Development Co. production, with support from Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Television Fund Created by the Government of Canada, CTF: Licence Fee Program and the participation of the province of Film Incentive B.C., Telus BC New Media and Broadcast Fund, in association with CHUM TV and TMN. Produced by Shan Tam, Michael Parker. Executive producers, David Hamilton, Nicholas Lea. Co-producer, Stephen Shin. Directed, written by Michael Parker.

Crew

Camera (color), John Houtman; editor, Michelle Floyd, Grace Yuen; music supervisor, Simon Kendall; production designer, Michael Bjornson; art director, Les Ford; set decorator, James Kilcher; costume designer, Tara Jones; sound (Dolby), Dennis Chen, Eric Leung Lek Chee; associate producer, Yves J. Ma; assistant directors, Matthew Buck, Sharon Lam Suk Ching (Hong Kong); casting, Corrine Clark. Reviewed at the Cinemark Tinseltown, Vancouver, Jan. 26, 2001. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Sean Lau, Nicholas Lea, Theresa Lee, Bif Naked, Philip Granger, Tom Scholte, Francoise Yip, Peter Wilds, Simon Kendall, Shannon Saunders, Peta Brookstone, Kelt Eccleston, Melissa Rebronja, Leung Chek Moon. (English and Cantonese dialogue.)
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