A tortuous, tawdry pulp romance set in Shanghai and San Francisco and strung out over 10 years, “You Are My Sunshine” feels like a puzzle with half the pieces missing. The film’s mainland Chinese co-helmers — TV journeyman Yang Wenjun and A-list artist-manager Ronald Huang — demonstrate little grasp of cinematic technique or artistic taste here, while leads Huang Xiaoming and Mini Yang generate less chemistry than two strangers trapped in an elevator. Still, the avid popularity of Gu Man’s online source novel and its TV drama spinoff have kept this bigscreen adaptation blazing bright at the domestic B.O., where it’s earned about $45.2 million in a week. As the film will barely make sense to anyone who’s not a die-hard fan of the franchise, overseas prospects are much cloudier.
Viewers who’ve seen Guo Jingming’s “Tiny Times,” China’s most lucrative novel-to-screen phenomenon, may wonder if they’ve slipped back into the same artificially gilded and emotionally vacant world — no surprise, since both films are rolled out by Le Vision Pictures and sport the same upscale look manufactured by Taiwanese stylist Rosalie Huang and lenser Randy Che. “You Are My Sunshine” even stars “Tiny Times” heroine Mini Yang, once again playing a flaky, simpering woman-child who thrives on the abuse of powerful men, with the flamboyant best friend again played by Hsieh Yi-lin.
With a rags-to-riches segment set in California where Tong Dawei plays a budding IT entrepreneur, the film also tries to appropriate crowdpleasing elements from “American Dreams in China,” which paired Tong with Huang. While the film lacks anything resembling its own identity, its runaway success indicates that mainland viewers still haven’t grown tired of college nostalgia, or glossy productions with a melodramatic/lifestyle-magazine sensibility. (The film enjoyed 33% of screening slots on opening day, while arthouse offerings like Wang Xiaoshuai’s “Red Amnesia” and Sylvia Chang’s “Murmur of the Hearts” were squeezed with only 1%.)
On a 2005 ferry boat to Alcatraz, Chinese student Mosheng (Yang) illegally solicits tourists to get their photos taken by her. Before there’s time to say “cheesy,” the time frame leaps ahead to 2015, and she’s back in her native Shanghai. Amazingly, knowing how to handle a Polaroid camera was enough to land her a career as fashion photographer for the city’s most chic style magazine.
At a supermarket, she runs into old flame Yichen (Huang), now a hotshot corporate lawyer. When she sees him dating his foster sister Yimei (Angelababy), it throws her into such a tizzy that she knocks over a mountain of merchandise. As in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the sight of a femme tripping over herself proves more arousing than any plunging neckline, leading to the first of many electrifying stare-downs. Again and again, they bump into each other — or rather, he stalks her, howls at her for leaving him seven years ago, and overpowers her with his embraces.
Already poorly developed on an emotional level, the film further disrupts its own momentum and sequential logic with a series of flashbacks tracing how the couple first met in college in 2002. There’s really nothing off-the-wall about their romantic shenanigans other than oodles of ickiness, epitomized by Mosheng force-feeding Yichen durian candy (just because in Chinese, the malodorous fruit puns with “lingering love”).
From there, the yarn becomes an all-out potboiler, revealing shady connections between Yichen’s deceased parents and Mosheng’s mayor dad, Zhao Qingyuan (Yao Anlian), and stepmother, Madame Pei (Joan Chen). For a while the film generates some suspense, raising the question of whether Yichen might be forced to choose between love and revenge, but the dramatic arc ultimately flatlines. The appearance of Mosheng’s ex-husband, Ying Hui (Tong, still speaking awful English), raises expectations of love-triangle shenanigans, but it turns out to be just an excuse to recount Ying and Mosheng’s hipster life in sunny California. The denouement and epilogue leave many loose ends dangling, but few will care.
The performances don’t benefit much from the crudeness of the characterizations. Yichen exhibits bipolar traits, flying into a rage one moment, breaking down in tears the next; by turns starchy and weirdly menacing, Huang keeps you guessing as to whether he’ll kiss Mosheng or hit her. Flapping about saucer-eyed, Mini Yang strains to convince as a ditzy babe. As Yichen’s intern-cum-personal-bartender, Tao (formerly of Korean boy band EXO) cultivates a metrosexual image copied from Japanese manga “The Black Butler,” to gratuitous effect. Hsieh phones in her perf as the bossy bestie, a role she’s repeated ad nauseum in every mainland romantic comedy she’s done.
Of the pedestrian tech credits, most grating is the indiscriminate backlighting, which cloaks faces in a yellowish brightness; some shots are held so long they morph into freeze-frame. Music provides an overdose of Jimmie Davies’ iconic song (supposedly Mosheng’s favorite), while the sound mix is muddled and deafening.