(Mandarin, English and Cantonese dialogue)
Agentle, often very perceptive light drama about a young mainland Chinese woman’s emotional dislocation in London, “Foreign Moon” marks a belated return to form by director Zhang Zeming a decade after his feature bow, “Swan Song.” Unbalanced only by some uneven casting, and a strong male lead who overshadows the putative central character, this makes a good companion piece to Sylvia Chang’s similarly themed, N.Y.-set “Siao Yu” in charting the emigre Chinese experience. Given its low-key approach, however, pic looks destined more for tube than theatrical exposure.
Zhang initially wrote the script in 1991, soon after coming to the U.K. following the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, and he incorporates many of his own experiences as a newcomer to the West. After a period in development at the British Film Institute’s Production Board, it sat on the back burner until kickstarted by a pre-buy by BBC-TV and further coin from Hong Kong-based Media Asia Films. Pic, which brings together players from Taiwan, China and England, has been nominated in several categories at this year’s Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan.
Music student Lan-lan (Vicky Chen Hsiao-hsuan) arrives penniless and lingo-less in London, where she discovers her sponsor expects her to marry his milquetoast son, Charles (David Tse). Sneaking away, she stays with a middle-aged mainlander she earlier met by chance — Su Tong (Harrison Liu), who lodges with freewheeling young mainlander Deng Lin (Chen Daming).
To pay for her tuition, Lan-lan throws in with Su and Deng when they set up a Chinese takeout business from their tiny apartment. Slowly, an awkward affection grows between the virginal 20-year-old and the married Su, whose wife and son are still in China. When the business collapses thanks to the headstrong Deng, Lan-lan has to make some tough decisions about her future.
Like Zhang’s “Swan Song” and his underrated sophomore feature, “Sun and Rain, ” the pic draws a fragile emotional arc among its main characters, and is mostly concerned with feelings that dare not speak their name. This throws a strong burden on the lead actors, of whom Liu (a mainlander now resident in Canada) is more than equal to the task, with a strong screen presence; pretty Vicky Chen (a Taiwan TV thesp) is OK to good; and Tse (a British-based actor) is weak in an underwritten part. As the womanizing Deng, Chen Daming (a Frisco-based mainlander) is fine as the one strong character who knows exactly what he wants out of the West — lotsa sex and a foreign passport.
Shooting in an unflashy style, and mixing studio and location work in a spot-on portrait of London life, Zhang juggles the movie’s various moods with a generally sure hand. At base, it’s a quiet romance, with a wistful streak that may prove too soft and uneventful for more hardheaded Western auds. But its Chinese characters are very real, and the pic accurately captures their various responses and solutions to cultural dislocation.
Tech credits on the low-budgeter are good, with Cantonese lenser Iu Lik’s cinematography subtly enhancing the delicate tone.