A gorgeously lensed romantic comedy, flecked with moments of introspection, “20 30 40” will come as a pleasant surprise to auds who thought Taipei was entirely populated by angst-ridden youths or introverted homosexuals. Latest feature by Taiwan-born all-rounder Sylvia Chang, focusing on the emotional pleasures and vicissitudes of three generations of women, ranks among her best pics, like “Siao Yu” and “Tonight Nobody Goes Home.” Strong Hong Kong/Taiwan name cast should propel this to satisfying biz in the East, though the Col Asia production will need canny marketing to overcome fest-bred resistance in the West.
Misplaced in the more serious, grittier competition of the Berlin fest –it would have fared much better in the Panorama section — Chang’s ninth feature finds her returning to more familiar territory after the uneven, SFX-heavy youth fairytale, “Princess-D.” Based on original stories by the three leads (Chang herself, Rene Liu and Angelica Lee Sinje), but neither an episode film nor a criss-crosser, movie is in many ways a summation of her directing career, which has centered on contemporary relationships from a femme standpoint.
After introducing the three main characters in a title sequence at Taipei airport, film flip-flops between their various stories across the same period of time. Youngest is 20-year-old Xiao-jie (Lee), who’s left her family home in Malaysia to pursue a pop career in Taiwan. It’s hardly the big time: Her manager, Shi (Anthony Wong), is an aging hippy composer in a woolly hat and shoulder-length hair who wants to team her with the bubblesome Yi Tong (model Kate Yeung, from “Demi-Haunted”) in a girl duo like Hong Kong’s successful Twins.
Meanwhile, thirtysomething flight attendant Xiang (Liu) is being pulled this way and that by her affair with a married man and a younger lover. Terminally indecisive, and lonely at her core, Xiang isn’t ready for commitment but does want company of some sort.
Repping the middle-aged generation is Lily Zhao (Chang), a married mom who runs a flower shop. After discovering her husband’s infidelity, she divorces him and — in pic’s funniest scenes — tries to get back in shape and into the dating scene. She meets handsome businessman Jerry (Tony Leung Kar-fai), but Jerry’s dating a young woman who could almost be Lily’s daughter.
The tangential way in which the three women’s lives are linked — first via an earthquake, later by occasionally being in the same location, but never meeting — is one of the movie’s delights, especially at a time when criss-crossing has become an over-used device. Film cuts back and forth in a seamless way, the whole shebang united by the theme of all of them looking for something that in the end turns out to merely a way of better knowing themselves.
Pic’s original cut, by ace Taiwanese editor Liao Ching-sung, was around 140 minutes, and some background and emotional depth has clearly been lost in the half-hour left on the cutting-room floor. The exact nature of Xiang’s relationships is initially difficult to work out, and more moments of individual calm (at which Liu, especially, excels) would have helped, particularly in the first half. Ironically, at its final length, film could do with about five minutes of further trimming, reducing the scenes of the two songbirds’ girlish bonding.
Chang, who’s actually 50 but looks 10 years younger, ends up with the lion’s role as Lily, a warmly comedic performance that’s refreshingly free of self-pity. In their scenes together, Chang and Leung show an effortless chemistry.
Liu’s role, halfway between klutz and dreamer, is the least well-defined, with the actress (“Siao Yu,” “The Personals”) often playing against her usual quieter screen persona. Lee (“Princess-D,” “The Eye”), who’s actually Malaysian born like her character, comes into her own in the latter stages, in a touching friendship with Yeung’s wannabe that has a heart-stopping moment at the very end.
Despite being shot during last summer’s SARS scare, the movie is utterly classy on the tech side. Unlike most Taiwanese films, this is closer to the real Taipei, a vigorous, positive city of functioning individuals, lusciously lensed by Chen Hsiang and enhanced by Hong Kong p.d. Man Lim-chung. For the record, pic’s title is “20:30:40” on publicity material but sans colons on actual print.