Pitting a gourmet Gallic pastry chef against a humble Taiwanese baker in a bun-making contest to see who gets the girl, “The Soul of Bread” adds little to the stale maxim that anything tastes good when it’s made with love. Marred by cheesy definitions of l’amour and stale town-vs.-country value judgments, this effort from helmers Kao Pin-chuan and Lin Chun-yang works best as an extended vehicle for lead thesp Michelle Chen, who became a hot property after Taiwan megahit “You Are the Apple of My Eye.” Chinese-speaking markets and Asian-friendly ancillary will bite.
A cutesy prologue sets the infantile storybook tone of the pic, introducing half-Taiwanese, half-French beefcake Brad (Anthony Neely) as a wildly popular baker with his own TV show. When his mother, Sophie (Janel Tsai) dies, it sends Brad into a tailspin and his ratings plummet. To get over his grief, Brad heads to Sophie’s birthplace in Taiwan and locates a village bakery, the source of the most unforgettable bun his mother ever tasted.
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Brad pleads with the owner, Mr. Chiu (Liao Chun), to take him on as an apprentice, but he gets distracted by the sight of Chiu’s lovely daughter, Hsiao-ping (Chen). Although Hsiao-ping already has a sweetheart, Gaobing (Chen Han-tien), she longs to flee her provincial cocoon and reach Paris — her dream destination, and something Brad’s passionate courtship could provide. A bread-making contest seems unavoidable.
The least endearing aspect of “Soul” is not its lax attitude toward structure, plot consistency or realism, but rather its unawareness of how corny it is. When Brad sings “La Vie en rose” in Neely’s incongruous American accent, it’s presented without a trace of irony, and auds are expected to ooh-and-ah along with Hsiao-ping. Similarly, to underscore the devotion of Gaobing (the nickname means “cake and biscuit”) to Hsiao-ping, the helmers pile on the declarations of love without even bothering to vary the dialogue to suit the occasion.
To dramatize the male protags’ rivalry, the screenplay has them regress into ever more pea-brained behavior and boorish machismo. Lacking the depth of characterization that would make their strengths and weaknesses distinctive, Hsiao-ping’s indecision doesn’t convey the intended agony or tension.
The screenplay betrays its origins as a 2007 TV movie (also helmed by Kao) by tossing in a plateful of subplots. Some have batty charm, like the village elders treating Brad’s baguettes as phallic talismans, but most of the attempts at quirky humor fall flat. Characters are colorful in that campy, folksy way that’s all the rage in Taiwanese cinema, but the incorporation of crowdpleasing local elements seems forced.
Chen, who had more to express with her sensitively drawn roles in “Apple” and “Hear Me,” is not sufficiently challenged as a conventionally sweet country girl, but she still rises gracefully above the often-ludicrous storyline. Other perfs remain one-note.
On the culinary front, the pic sticks to pure eye-candy, dishing out an exotic array of bread and pastries. These shots convey visual as well as tactile pleasure, something missing in the pic’s depictions of romance.
Aside from kitschy camera tricks, rushed editing and a score drowning in slushy pop songs, tech credits are adequate.