Interweaving two love stories set in Prague, one in the ’40s and one in the present, “Somewhere Only We Know” drowns in the unbearable triteness of cinematic tourism, while indulging the latest fad for boy bands and foreign dates among mainland Chinese women. Although her latest film radiates neither soul nor sincerity, actress-helmer Xu Jinglei demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the marketplace that has certainly paid off: Since its Valentine’s Day opening, the pic has held up impressively against Lunar New Year blockbusters, becoming the highest earner of Xu’s directing career. Notwithstanding an upcoming Stateside bow and select screenings Down Under, however, the film’s prissy tone and risibly quaint images of Europe may elicit giggles from Western audiences.
Xu shows her commercial savvy simply by casting the hugely popular Kris (aka Wu Yifan), a former Chinese member of the Korean boy band EXO, in an effort to lure the exploding market of tween moviegoers. The screenplay credited to seven writers (including Xu and author-scribe Wang Shuo of “Gone With the Bullets” fame) also reflects a change of pace after the director’s sassy white-collar romantic comedies “Go Lala Go!” and “Dear Enemy.” Seizing upon the nationwide craze to study or travel abroad, “Somewhere Only We Know” does offer first-class escapism, depicting attractive nouveau riche students chilling out in a continental city, sipping champagne on barges and never fretting over classes, exams, their livelihood or even visas.
Following the road traveled by so many romantic-comedy heroines who’ve been ditched at the altar, Beijing office girl Jin Tian (Claudia Wang Likun) decides she needs a change of scenery. Since her grandmother Lanxin (Wang Liyun) spent her youth in Prague, Jin decides to enroll in a Czech language school there. One night, while clubbing with classmate Shanshan (Kazakh beauty Rayza) and her b.f., Luo Ji (Zhang Chao), Jin propositions a stranger (Kris) in a drunken haze. But it comes to nought: Rather than whisking her off to the nearest motel, he takes her home and tucks her into bed under the watchful eye of his mother (Cong Shan) and small daughter Nini (Chai Shuya).
Jin’s chaste pickup turns out to be Peng Zeyang, a cellist who plays in the same orchestra as Luo. More sparks fly when Jin and Shanshan moonlight as waitresses at a country wedding where Peng and Luo are hired as musicians. If this episode is meant to launch Wang as the new Chinese romantic-comedy goddess, it fails dismally: Whether she’s looking ridiculous in Czech national costume or self-indulgently spiraling out of control in church, Jin does her irritating best (or worst) to provoke Peng.
Jin is entrusted with a letter that was sent to Lanxin in 1979, from a certain Dr. Josef Novak (Gordon Alexander) in Prague. Intrigued by Novak’s promise to wait at “the place only we know,” Jin roams the city trying to piece together their history. In flashbacks, the film re-creates Lanxin’s past as an aspiring artist (played by Xu) drifting through war-torn Europe, until she becomes a nurse at Dr. Novak’s clinic in 1947. One would have expected that Xu — who successfully transported Vienna’s turn-of-the-century opulence to 1930s Beijing in her adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s “Letter From an Unknown Woman” — would exercise similar stylistic refinement on her period material here. Moreover, since Czechoslovakia and China underwent similar postwar upheaval, history could have provided fertile common ground for the insecure exile and the melancholy widower.
Disappointingly, however, apart from a montage that throws in every Nazi-era movie cliche imaginable, the couple just swan around on horseback in a Prague that resembles a chintzy antique shop. The camera revels in slow-motion folk dances but doesn’t capture any physical passion until the denouement, which feels too sudden and too late. Likewise, there’s so little sensual frisson between Jin and Peng that the defining moment when they finally become lovers barely registers. Even when Peng’s family problems emerge, or when Jin’s ex (Stanley Huang) resurfaces, these incidents add no dramatic tension and offer no new character insights. Real-world issues are left dangling as the film strains for an upbeat ending, complete with closing credits that urge viewers to hug their partners.
Overall, the cast dutifully delivers what is required of them by the pedestrian script, but can’t prevail over the flat characterizations and weak story arcs. Kris’ too-cool-for-the-room air suits his character’s rich-kid background, but he’s made to assume too many personae — b.f., son, single father, man with a past — thus diluting his central role as Jin’s lover. Wang winds up playing second fiddle to Xu as her role gradually shrinks to that of an observer of others’ fates. Scottish martial artist and stuntman Alexander isn’t too magnetic but offers a gentle, unobtrusive presence. Xu, who always holds the screen confidently, seems too affected in her demure sweetness here.
Tech credits are pro, especially Mark Lee Ping-bin’s pleasing widescreen lensing of postcard-worthy scenery. However, the production’s approach to its dual time frames feels slipshod and inconsistent: Neither the decor nor the lighting distinguishes the late-’40s scenes from the contempo segments. An Wei’s muddled music anachronistically uses bebop in the older sequences, while incongruously blasting Bedrich Smetana’s heroically rousing “Ma vlast” during Lanxin and Novak’s intimate scenes. Mysteriously, while Czechs speak in their native tongue in the present, they speak English (even to each other) in the ’40s.