Asian superstars Gong Li and Andy Lau spark together, but the script rarely produces fireworks in “What Women Want,” a straightforward remake of Paramount’s 2000 money-spinner. What promises to be a fizzy Chinese battle-of-the-sexes farce is let down by too few zingers and a too-long running time. But the premise of a chauvinist suddenly being able to read women’s minds remains irresistible, and female auds are likely to turn this into a substantial mainland hit. Released in most major territories Feb. 3 to coincide with Chinese New Year, pic looks set for more modest returns on just 20 North American screens.
Sticking to the major points of Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa’s original script, the story here centers on Sun Zigang (Lau), a divorced advertising exec who’s surrounded by fawning office girls and swaggers around Beijing like he’s God’s gift to women. Expecting to be promoted by CEO Dong (Li Chengru), Sun is thrown for an ego-bruising loop when the job goes instead to Li Yilong (Gong), a star creative recruited to remedy the firm’s failing ability to connect with modern female consumers.
Pic plays best immediately following a freak electrical accident that leaves Su with the ability to hear women’s thoughts. Horrified at first to know exactly what his underlings and teenage daughter really think of him, Sun cunningly adapts and is soon saying the right thing to every woman who catches his roving eye. Most prominent is Yanni (Yuan Li, delightful), a coffee-shop worker whose appealing relationship with Sun is unconvincingly sacrificed at the midway point to make way for Li.
Without producing huge belly laughs, the midsection motors along pleasantly enough but comes unstuck when Sun starts to fall for Li after stealing her ideas, prompting Dong to wonder if she’s an experiment the company doesn’t need.
Looking terrific at 49 and 45, respectively, Lau and Gong have the right physical chemistry, but helmer Chen Daming’s screenplay doesn’t give them much verbal snap and crackle, and Sun’s eventual fessing up to Li is emotionally underwhelming. Though the narrative hardly stops dead in its tracks, the final furlongs still have the feel of a novelty that’s worn off.
Visuals are as glossy as the ads Sun and Li produce. Exteriors filmed around the striking Soho building in Beijing’s central business district, and interiors in chic bars, restaurants and retail outlets themselves rep a promo for the city’s modernization program.
Production designer Li Zhuoyi and costume designer Li Yikai have gone to town, packing high-end goods and clothing packed into every frame. Only hint of anything old-fashioned is Christopher O’Young’s score, which swings nicely from brassy big-band-style tunes to lush strings and piano in the latter stages.
Other technical work is spot-on. Chinese title translates as “I Know a Woman’s Heart.”