Far from the closeted capital of Asian anomie so often portrayed in Taiwanese fest fare, Taipei becomes a warm, romantic city, peopled with enjoyable oddballs, in Boston-born American-Chinese Arvin Chen’s immensely likable feature debut, “Au revoir Taipei.” Ensemble criss-crosser, mostly set during a young guy’s final night in his hometown, is a well-crafted romancer that could build sufficient traction as an audience-pleaser on the festival circuit to make some specialty distribs take a chance on saying bonjour for niche play.
As Kai (Jack Yao) bids g.f. Faye farewell before she heads off to catch a flight to Paris, his v.o. slips into French, initially raising fears — happily unfulfilled — that the pic will suffer from cross-cultural pretensions. Obsessed with leaving Taipei and joining her in Europe, Kai is a hopeless dreamer who whiles away his time working at the backstreet noodle eatery of his parents (Jack Kao, Liu Jui-chi) and trying to master French at night in a bookstore.
The film slowly spins its web of quiet humor as a pretty young shelf-stacker in the bookstore, Susie (Amber Kuo), circles him, clearly attracted, though Kai himself hardly notices.
Other characters in the neighborhood swim into view: vet gangster Brother Bao (Frankie Gao); his louche nephew, Hong (Lawrence Ko), who’s due to inherit the business; and handsome married cop Ji-yong (Joseph Chang), who’s staking out Bao’s operation. When Kai is dumped over the phone by Faye and decides to hightail it to Paris to win her back, Bao offers him the airfare — but on condition that he take a mysterious package with him.
The stage is set for a long night before Kai’s flight, in which he has a farewell meal with a friend, Gao (Paul Chiang), bumps into Susie (who insists on sticking with him) and becomes drawn into a maelstrom of greed, kidnapping and emotional turmoil as to whether he should even leave his hometown. All the characters undergo some kind of catharsis or life change — from the cop and his unhappy wife (Peggy Tseng) to Gao, who falls for a girl, Peach (Vera Yen) — as they follow each other around through the backstreets at night.
Working with American d.p. Michael Fimognari and American-Chinese jazz composer Hsu Wen, Chen evokes a romantic, borderline-unreal Taipei in which anything is possible. Well-constructed script, which neatly sets up ideas and rounds them off later, pretty much sustains interest during the tight running time, and when the cogs start to click into place after the opening 30-minute setup, Chen hardly puts a foot wrong.
Kuo is especially good as the bookshop girl quietly carrying a torch for the single-minded Kai, and older players like Gao and Chang add some heft as the gangster and cop. Things get a bit too sophomoric in the subplot of Hong and his nerdy, kidnapping colleagues, but the film’s ensemble is strong overall, with every character well defined.
For the record, Wim Wenders offered behind-the-scenes support after being introduced to Chen via L.A.-based Korean-American producer Lee In-ah. Original Mandarin title literally means “A Page of Taipei,” but also sounds identical to that for “One Night in Taipei.”