As if molded from a heart-shaped cookie cutter, the three tenuously linked stories in Doze Niu Chen-Zer’s formulaic “Love” are cute, crumbly and not particularly filling. Possessing a fraction of the stylistic swagger, visual exuberance and actorly charisma of “Monga,” the Taiwanese writer-helmer’s record-making B.O. success, Niu’s latest Taipei/Beijing-set pic folds in any number of cliches borrowed from “Love Actually” and its Hong Kong/mainland clone, “Hot Summer Days,” but ends up flattening out local flavor and character complexity. Taiwanese auds in the mood for love during Valentine’s Day season contributed to strong opening. Other markets will be less infatuated.
In essence, this China-Taiwan co-production is an omnibus of three standalone love stories made to feel like one feature-length narrative, unfolding in parallel time with social or blood ties connecting the characters. As scripted by Tseng Li-ting, Wang Qinan and Niu, yarn employs a conventional menage-a-trois setup and neatly resolves all conflicts by its upbeat end.
While “Love” overall has enough likable characters, fanciful dramatic turns and fluffy humor to charm as a date movie, the long intervals in which the pic shifts between stories require repeated warm-up time for auds. Result is the equivalent of being served a succession of dishes that have all gone cold, a fact not helped by the unvaried editing.
After making a failed pass at commitment-phobic entrepreneur Mark Na (Mark Jau, “Monga”), Taiwanese celebrity Zoe Fang (Shu Qi) discovers that at the hotel of their attempted tryst, employee Kuan (Ethan Ruan, also in “Monga”) has taken housekeeping to a prying fanboy level. Zoe presses her sugar daddy, Lu Ping (Niu), into an engagement, but his womanizing and insensitivity make a rooftop rendezvous with klutzy, stuttering Kuan seem an attractive option by comparison.
This Taipei triangle is predictable from the onset, though the Kuan’s unworldliness neatly offsets Lu’s blasé experience. Despite the eventual revelation of some backstory to justify Zoe’s insecurity and need to live off men, her role as a ravishing beauty remains abstract and symbolic.
In the next segment, Mark goes to Beijing to purchase a traditional courtyard house and indirectly causes real-estate agent Jin Xiaoye (Vicky Zhao) to injure her leg. A verbal sword-crossing, odd-couple relationship develops between cool, uptight Mark and ditzy single mother Xiaoye, with a meddlesome policeman (Wang Jingchun, wonderfully deadpan) and Xiaoye’s young son Doudou fueling their fire.
This Beijing-set yarn pokes witty fun at cultural preconceptions that Taiwanese and mainlanders harbor for each other. Enlivened by sparkling dialogue and the protags’ prickly, less-than-ideal personalities, Jau and Zhao create a frisson that is largely free of slushiness, at least until the needy and annoyingly angelic Doudou takes centerstage and turns this romantic comedy into a surrogate-family meller.
The third and weakest strand pits Kuan’s sister, Yijia (Ivy Chen), against her bosom buddy, Ni (Amber Kuo), against each other when Yijia is knocked up by Ni’s b.f., Kai (Eddie Peng), an undertaker who wants to direct movies.
Aimed to woo younger auds, this thread instead comes off as merely generic and childish. There’s no credible basis for Ni and Yijia’s initial friendship, their later enmity or their fondness for Kai. The fact that Kai is a douchebag who deserves neither woman is reinforced by a stunt involving a septic tank; meant to show his endearing side, it only brings the tone of the story down to a juvenile level.
Unexpectedly, the most down-to-earth and heartwarming depiction of love is between siblings Kuan and Yijia, gently suffused into their daily conversations and culminating in one genuinely touching scene.
Production and costume design by Huang Mei-ching and Fan Chi-lun, respectively, are devoid of personal style; scenes depicting Lu’s high-society milieu look overly glossy, while representations of Taipei and Beijing seem bland. Mark Lee Ping-bing’s lensing remains luscious as ever, making Shu look incandescent in warm, caressing light. Cloying score by Chen Chien-chi is loaded with pop songs but has almost no effect on enhancing mood.