Review: ‘Turn Left Turn Right’

Warner Bros. comes out of the traps with its first Asian production, a cute date movie in which the two leads almost never meet. Piece of fluff that's sustained by clever twists, film marks a rare excursion into romantic comedy by co-helmers Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai. Pic performed well and makes smart attraction for Asian-centered events and sidebars.

Warner Bros. comes smartly out of the traps with its first Asian production, “Turn Left Turn Right,” a meet-cute date movie in which the two leads almost never meet. A pure piece of fluff that’s sustained by clever plot twists, film marks a rare excursion into romantic comedy by co-helmers Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, following their more conventional but entertaining “Needing You…” (2000). Pic has performed well, though not humongously, in Hong Kong and Taiwan since opening in September and makes a smart attraction for Asian-centered events and sidebars.

Story could be remade in any country and any language, and already recalls numerous Hollywood productions from the ’30s to ’60s. Slickly lensed and entirely driven by plot mechanisms, it derives its flavor from lively supporting perfs and the sly manipulation of the genre’s conventions by Wai and his regular fellow writers.

Pic starts out like any of a thousand other East Asian romancers, as Eve Choi (Gigi Leung) reads a Polish book called “Love at First Sight” in the rainy Taipei streets. She’s a mildly ditzy professional translator who works for a hard-nosed publisher, George (To regular Hui Siu-hung), and tends to get emotionally involved in the tomes she’s working on. Meanwhile, John Liu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a classical violinist, can’t get any serious gigs and is forced to accept work playing for a restaurateur (Lam Suet, another To regular).

Eve and John live in adjoining apartments, but they’ve never met as she always turns left on the street and he right. First two reels sketch their parallel lives, almost bumping into each other in a movie theater and on a crossed phone line. In a recurring device which paragraphs the pic, a billboard at the elevated stop announces: “Life is full of coincidences. Two parallel lines may some day meet.”

Sure enough they do, by a park fountain, when Eve’s latest manuscript blows into the water and John wades in to get it. Chatting afterward and aided by flashbacks, they realize they knew each other as school kids too shy to reveal they liked each other. At the time, he gave her his phone number, but she never called. So now they exchange numbers in hope of a new start.

Pic has so far played as a straightforward Asian date movie, shot through with the usual conventions. Hereon, however, Wai and his team start rattling the cage.

Caught in a rainstorm, each finds the other’s number indecipherable on returning home. After trying every variation — one of which is a home-delivery eatery — they give up, finally ordering take-out from the same joint. Enter the first subsidiary character, waitress June (Shu Wei-lun), who immediately falls for John when she delivers his meal, realizes what’s up when she later delivers Eve’s, and selfishly keeps their adjoining addresses a secret.

When Eve and John both end up in the same hospital with pneumonia after the rainstorm, script stirs in the second support, geeky Dr. Hui (Edmund Chen), who falls for Eve and eventually colludes with June to keep Eve and John from discovering each other’s phone numbers.

Rock Hudson and Doris Day would have felt right at home here –phone theme recalls their 1959 “Pillow Talk” — and the use of colorful supporting characters as contrast to the more hidebound leads is a device straight out of Universal’s old production manual. In this respect, Shu and Chen act the lower-key Leung and Kaneshiro off the screen, in a sour-sweet combo that keeps the movie bubbling.

Ultimately, however, for a movie that’s rigidly structured into parallel scenes, it’s the scripter’s juggling that prevents the whole souffle from falling flat. Clever, unexpected ending will surprise even savvy auds.

Technical credits are slick throughout, with plenty of music (Sibelius, Elgar, plus original scoring) providing a sonic sheen and Hong Kong interiors melding well with Taipei locations. For the record, the two main characters are never referred to by name, only by their former school numbers (784533 for Eve, 763092 for John), which later becomes a plot point. Mandarin version caught — the preferable one, given pic is set in Taiwan — has Leung, Lam and Hui dubbed, though the first is done very well.

Turn Left Turn Right

Hong Kong - Singapore

Production

A Warner Bros. (Far East) release and presentation of a Milkyway Image (H.K.)/Raintree Pictures (Singapore) production. (International sales: Warners, Hong Kong.) Executive producers, Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai, Daniel Yun. Directed by Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai. Screenplay, Wai, Yau Nai-hoi, Au Kin-yee, Yip Tin-sing, based on the illustrated book by Jimmy Liao.

Crew

Camera (color), Cheng Siu-keung; editor, Law Wing-cheong; music, Chun Chi-wing, Ben Cheung; art director, Bruce Yu; sound (Dolby Digital), Lee Sin-kwok. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (Open Cinema), Oct. 9, 2003. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Takeshi Kaneshiro, Gigi Leung, Edmund Chen, Shu Wei-lun, Kwan Ying, Lam Suet, Hui Siu-hung. (Mandarin dialogue version)
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