Beautifully observed relationship movie is overly discursive in its second half but always watchable.

After taking a left turn (with mixed success) into big-budgeters “The Banquet” and “Assembly,” mainland Chinese writer-director Feng Xiaogang returns to the kind of film that made his name — ironic observational comedies mirroring contempo China — with “If You Are the One.” Beautifully observed relationship movie is overly discursive in its second half but always watchable, thanks to terrific chemistry between Feng regular Ge You and Taiwanese actress Shu Qi. Broadminded fests should give this audience-pleaser a spin, with specialized TV pickups also possible.

With $50 million in mainland B.O., the pic is officially the biggest all-time grosser in China, torpedoing “Titanic” ($47 million) from that spot. Given Feng’s history as the country’s top box office draw, the movie was expected to do well. But with its unconventional structure and less sparky tone than in previous hits like “Be There or Be Square” or “Cell Phone,” the pic’s socko success is still surprising.

Spryly comic opening scene, in which inventor Qin Fen (Ge) sells his Conflict Resolution Terminal — basically an empty plastic tube — to a dumb venture capitalist (local comic Fan Wei) is a kind of farewell by Feng to his past movies mocking China’s nouveau riche. Post-titles, Qin, now independently wealthy, advertises for the next thing to make his life complete: a wife.

The blind dates that result are scattered through the first half of the film as comic punctuation (one of the best features Vivian Hsu as a needy husband-hunter). Better still, the dates don’t detract from the main story, in which Qin meets the sad but beautiful Liang Xiaoxiao, aka Smiley (Shu), a young flight attendant whom the balding, middle-aged, no-B.S. Qin immediately realizes is out of his league.

Smiley agrees, but the two end up having a drink and — as they’re never going to meet again — they decide to be totally honest with each other. She admits she has an unsatisfactory relationship with a married man (Hong Kong thesp Alex Fong), and is drinking to forget; he tells her exactly what he thinks.

The screwball setup is hardly original, and the odd-couple romance can be seen cominga mile away. But Ge and Shu make it a journey the viewer wants to go on, even though their characters (as in all of Feng’s movies) are essentially selfish, bottom-line pragmatists.

After an embarrassing episode in which the two meet by chance on another flight, Smiley finally dumps her lover and comes up with an extraordinary proposal to which Qin agrees. This involves them spending time together in scenic Hokkaido, Japan.

Pic is basically structured as two long acts, not three, with the hourlong first half followed by a 40-minute seg in Japan and a brief, upbeat coda. Second act, which is much more observational — as Qin, Smiley and Qin’s Chinese friend carouse around the region — gives both thesps a chance to build on the characters established during the wittier first half. The dramatic thread does occasionally become a tad too leisurely, and the pic lacks the final emotional wallop of Feng’s earlier movies.

The acting revelation here is Shu, so often cast in airhead roles, who shows signs in her early 30s of developing into a real actress — holding her own, line by line, against the veteran Ge. Under Feng’s direction, she manages to pull off the more interior, sensitive scenes without losing her natural freshness and spontaneity.

Technical package is ultra-slick, with d.p.-cum-occasional helmer Lu Yue making the most of the neatly manicured Hokkaido locations. A warm but restrained score by Ching Liu and Ray Liu eases the story along.

For the record, the loopy idea of the Conflict Resolution Terminal is credited to maverick Hong Kong director Edmond Pang, aka Pang Ho-cheung, whose own films share a similar taste for the ridiculous side of life. Pic’s Chinese title roughly means, “If you’re not serious, don’t waste my time,” as in a personals ad.

If You Are the One

China-Hong Kong

Production

A Huayi Brothers Media Corp. (China)/Media Asia Films (Hong Kong) production. (International sales: Huayi Brothers Media Corp., Beijing.) Produced by Chen Kuo-fu, Wang Zhonglei. Executive producers, Wang Zhongjun, John Chong. Co-producers, Zhang Dajun, Shirley Lau. Directed, written by Feng Xiaogang, from a story by Feng, Chen Kuo-fu.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Lu Yue; supervising editor, Liu Miaomiao; editor, Xiao Yang; music, Ching Liu, Ray Liu; art director, Shi Haiying; costume designer, Man Lim-chung; sound (Dolby Digital), Wen Bo; visual effects supervisor, Phil Jones; visual effects producer, Jiang Yanming; assistant director, Zhang Changzheng. Reviewed on DVD, London, March 27, 2009. (In Berlin Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 124 MIN.

With

Ge You, Shu Qi, Fan Wei, Alex Fong, Vivian Hsu, Feng Yuanzheng, Hu Ke, Uzaki Issoh, Che Xiao, Gong Xinliang, He Jiayi, Luo Haiqiong. (Mandarin, Japanese, English dialogue)
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