Vet Taiwanese filmmaker Steven C.C. Liu returns after a 10-year hiatus with a lavishly mounted but simplistic melodrama that veers perilously close to high camp. Despite obvious sincerity on Liu’s part, pic’s ponderous pacing and cloying sentimentality will turn off even the most ardent devotees of Asian cinema.
Chin Su-Mei (who starred in Ang Lee’s arthouse hit “The Wedding Banquet” billed as May Chin) toplines as May Jean, a beautiful young woman whose life is torn asunder when her village is caught in the cross-fire between nationalist and communist forces in 1947.
After her deserter husband is executed by the local communist commander, May Jean winds up working at a Catholic school where the plucky Sister Helen (Susan Layton) teaches 40 Chinese orphans. When Sister Helen injures herself, it’s up to the even pluckier May Jean to lead the children out of harm’s way. They set out on a 20-day walk through the war zone, heading to the seacoast where a U.S.-bound ship is due to sail.
Periodically, “May Jean” cuts from the overland misadventures to some heavy-handed scenes of bickering between a feisty American nun (Priscilla Barnes of “Three’s Company”) and a harried U.S. diplomat (James Callahan). She insists the ship will have to wait for the orphans. He insists the ship can’t wait for anyone. And on it goes. Evidently, these English-language scenes were intended to make the pic more interesting for Western audiences. They don’t.
“May Jean” offers a few impressive battle scenes, some borderline loony musical interludes and many, many teary-eyed close-ups of May Jean and her orphans. The ending is utterly shameless in the way it milks the tragedy of separation — May Jean can’t join the children aboard the ship — for what seems like an eternity. Oddly enough, however, pic never manages to work up much suspense while May Jean and the children are traveling between warring armies. There’s no real sense of danger because there’s never any serious doubt about the ultimate outcome.
Liu is much too fond of photographing little boys as they urinate into rivers. Other instances of low comedy are even less effective.
Chin is almost as resourceful, and suffers every bit as nobly, as a silent-movie heroine. Her performance is pic’s strongest asset, but it’s not nearly enough.
Production values, especially Chen Yuen-Shiu’s handsome color lensing, are fine.