Unwieldy and exasperating, but not without a certain pushy, ingratiating charm, Xue Xiaolu’s smash hit “Finding Mr. Right” turns out to have a bit more on its mind than its generic romantic-comedy title would suggest. Over the course of its leisurely 122-minute running time, this slick, saucy tale of a spoiled mainland princess who travels to Seattle to give birth manages to address the pressures of pregnancy and parenthood, the challenges of life in a foreign country, the temptations of material wealth, and the wan but enduring charms of “Sleepless in Seattle.” The whole thing might collapse were it not for Tang Wei’s irrepressible lead performance, redeeming an initially unbearable character through the sheer, unbridled force of her personality.
Having grossed a massive $85 million on home turf since March, the film will be much more of a niche offering Stateside when it bows Nov. 8. Nevertheless, as one of the year’s big Chinese B.O. success stories, it plants Xue firmly on the map as a mainland filmmaking talent to be reckoned with (she made a prominent 2010 debut with the Jet Li starrer “Ocean Heaven”). For all the clumsy moves and openly derivative story elements she trades in here, the story has a cultural specificity that gives it a unique feel and a small measure of dramatic heft, and its jumbled parts are stitched together with a brazen confidence that feels of a piece with the winning spirit of its protagonist.
That would be Wen Jiajia (Tang), the mistress of a wealthy Beijing tycoon; he’s sent her on an all-expenses-paid trip to Seattle, where she plans to give birth to their love-child away from prying eyes back at home. The very picture of bratty self-entitlement, Jiajia is an intensely dislikable piece of work. Upon her arrival in the chilly Washington suburbs, she immediately begins heaping abuse on her patient driver, Frank (Wu Xiubo), who takes her to a home maternity center run by the kindly Mrs. Huang (Elaine Jin). There, Jiajia wastes no time in making a nuisance of herself, barking outrageously inconsiderate orders and throwing wads of cash around to ensure that they’re enforced.
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As you’d expect, Jiajia’s comeuppance arrives right on schedule, just in time for the holidays. When her lover stands her up at Christmas and later cuts off her cash flow, she must learn the hard way that money isn’t everything while facing the prospect of raising her child alone. On hand to facilitate these lessons is Frank, a divorced dad who gave up a successful medical career in China to come to the U.S. With his quiet, tolerant demeanor and sad-sack goatee, he couldn’t seem a less likely match for the proud, vivacious Jiajia, which of course makes their eventual union even more of a foregone conclusion. (Naturally, she hits it off with Frank’s daughter, Julia, played at different ages by sisters Song Meihui and Song Meiman.)
As predictable as the outcome may be, Xue’s patchwork script is in no hurry to get to its “Sleepless in Seattle”-inspired romantic climax, the inevitable culmination of its endless visual and verbal references to that Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan perennial. But first, there are babies to be born, relationships to be reconciled, Western-pop-scored montages to be edited. There is no shortage of topical touches, acknowledging the rise of “birth tourism” among wealthy foreigners and critiquing the rampant consumerism of modern China. The film’s heart seems to be in the right place even at its most confused, as when it presents a warm, affirming portrait of a lesbian couple, then trots out a swishy gay stereotype a few beats later.
Against considerable odds, it’s Tang’s initially grating, ultimately winning performance that sustains this messy but endearing enterprise from start to finish. Sentenced to a five-year ban from Chinese productions in 2007 after her participation in Ang Lee’s racy “Lust, Caution,” the actress looks fully rejuvenated here, seizing into this material with such vigor and ferocity that you can almost see her delighting in her newfound freedom. She may not be a natural-born comedienne (the script gives her precious little to work with in that department), but her dramatic chops are considerable: Tang shrewdly treats Jiajia’s redemption as an extension rather than a reversal of her fighting spirit, her loneliness giving way as she thaws and thrives in her makeshift American community.
As Jiajia’s love interest and foil, Wu (best known for the Chinese TV series “Before the Dawn”) goes arguably too far in the opposite direction, coming across as stoic and recessive to a fault. Nevertheless, Frank’s fundamental decency more than shines through, and as the sole male character with any significant screen time, he doesn’t exactly face stiff competition for the titular honors.
Chan Chi-ying’s high-definition widescreen images have a sharpness of detail that makes up for the somewhat televisual framing and camera movement. The largely Vancouver-shot production has a fine feel for Pacific Northwest suburbia, contrasting with the shimmering urban panoramas of Beijing glimpsed in a few brief scenes. (The original Chinese title translates as “Beijing Meets Seattle.”) The score, however, never stops elbowing the viewer in the ribs, often swooping in to signal a dramatic shift before the plot point in question has fully registered.