In Taiwanese helmer Hou Chi-jan’s maniacally lightweight romantic comedy “When a Wolf Falls in Love With a Sheep,” a quaint couple’s whimsical behavior suddenly goes viral, extending to a host of sprightly secondary characters and finally infecting the entire student body at a nearby cram school. The film’s lighthearted goings-on — time-warped stop-motion, funny-animal animation and various other capricious conceits — mutate constantly, skirting cutesiness but never becoming boring. Often feeling like a Taipei-set “Amelie,” even including the hero’s returning of abandoned objects to their rightful owners, “Wolf” could charm those not averse to free-form flights of fancy.
Tung (Kai Ko) is sweet, unambitious and madly in love with Yi-Ying (Nikki Hsieh), their relationship zippily recapped in a pre-credits montage of Polaroids. But Tang awakens to find Yi-Ying gone, a Post-It note stuck to his forehead informing him that she has headed off to cram school. Desolate, Tang holes up in an increasingly bedraggled room (the stages of his depression compressed via stop-motion photography), then wanders along Nanyang Street in the hopes of sighting his lost love.
Nanyang Street lies in the very center of Taipei’s school district and becomes the film’s self-contained world as Tung falls into a job at the local print shop. Making copies of papers for the “Sure Win” cram school, he notices captioned drawings of a fluffy sheep (which sometimes magically animates) in the margins. The sheep is the thus-far-unappreciated work of a pixie-ish exam monitor/aspiring illustrator, Yang (Chien Man-shu). On a whim, Tung draws a wolf that dialogues with Yang’s sheep in the test papers; this inspires exam-taking students, who had never reacted to the standalone sheep, to deliver a sudden outpouring of sketched feedback.
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Although Tung and Yang become fast friends, sharing minor epiphanies and idiosyncratic impulses (like finding a home for an abandoned, smiley-faced umbrella), neither of them envisions a romantic future together, as both are still hung up on their previous paramours. For helmer Hou, the couple’s burgeoning affection flourishes most visibly in their separate, complementary interactions with the film’s well-stocked cast of colorful characters.
There’s Auntie Sticky Rice (Wu Pi-lien), whose lost dog Tung searches for nightly until fate intervenes to arrange a pet exchange. A reformed drunk-turned-priest (Lin Ching-tai) provides Tung with wisdom and pasta in his sometime incarnation as a noodle-stall proprietor. The solitary, slightly sad Yang finds an unlikely friend in money-mad Pao-Pao (Kuo Shu-yau), bustling away at a slew of odd jobs. And then there’s the masked, mysterious fried-rice vendor whose brokenhearted backstory Tung accidently stumbles upon.
Tech credits keep pushing big visual effects to maintain a consistent level of airy magic realism.