The on-and-off affair between a pop idol and his artist manager offers fewer thrills and spills than expected for paparazzi or audiences in “Fall in Love Like a Star,” a mainland Chinese romance that doesn’t take the concept beyond a mere vehicle for singer-actor Li Yifeng to be his bland, self-satisfied self on screen. Hong Kong-American helmer Tony Chan (“Hot Summer Days”) does maintain a consistently smooth and fizzy vibe with a screenplay that’s decidedly more story-driven than his corny remake of “Bride Wars.” Still, other than Li’s diehard fans (and there are many in China’s massive teen demographic), few viewers are likely to be starstruck by this mediocre pic, which has grossed a far-from-meteoric $24 million in domestic box office.
Having topped the national entertainment popularity index Vlinkage for a record period, 28-year-old Li remains red-hot on China’s idol scene, despite the poor quality of his big-screen work. His first leading role in “Forever Young” (2014) proved lackluster next to the captivating, ethereal presence of co-star Zhang Wenhui (“Coming Home”), and his lack of dramatic heft stuck out like a sore thumb among the electrifying ensemble cast of “Mr Six.” Tasked with a role that Jay Chou or Wang Leehom would have pulled off with charismatic ease, Li hasn’t been around long enough to attain superstar stature; his ascent reps another worrying example of mainland Chinese cinema’s reliance on untested teenybopper heartthrobs to carry a film.
Su Xingyu (Li), an instrument tuner for a rock band, meets cute with the band’s assistant Tian Xin (Mini Yang, “Tiny Times”), and the two daydream about becoming a famous singer-songwriter and artist manager, respectively. Five years later, Xingyu has been packaged into a pop sensation by manager supremo Mei (Chen Su), but he chafes at his loss of artistic freedom. After an epic brawl, they decide to go their separate ways. What serendipity that it happens on Xin’s first day of work at the same agency! She’s appointed to replace Mei on the spot. But alas, the narrative flips backward to reveal that she and Xingyu broke up three years ago, so now he’s out to make her life hell.
For a while, it appears as if the film could pull off its neat concept, as Chan nails the playfulness and simmering desires of feuding exes with the aid of ace Hong Kong editor Wenders Li, who keeps the story moving at a very breezy clip. It peaks with a scene in which Xin brings her suitor, food columnist Chen Xiang (Wang Yaoqing), to dinner at Xingyu’s pad, provoking the latter to retaliate by flirting with Meili (Dilraba Dilmurat, gorgeous), a starlet who wants to piggyback on his fame. The two men’s rivalry leads to some cheeky fun with a cook-off before the film descends into unrealistic romantic dross, and Xin regresses from a professional with a say in her lover’s career to his simpering “No. 1 Fan.”
How agents work the star system and make or break careers could make a cleverly satirical film subject, especially given the explosive growth of China’s current entertainment industry. When romance is stirred into the mix, it compounds their professional power play in an even juicier way. However, the screenplay by Chen and three other scribes barely touches on the ins and outs of the business. Xingyu is given so little emotional arc that the character and the actor seem indistinguishable; posing self-consciously in every shot, Li reduces the empty plot to a video diary.
Trilling in a squeaky voice as if she’s still 6, Yang hasn’t varied her ditzy, insecure intern act since “Tiny Times,” even though, at 29, she’s clearly too old for that. The film may feature more heavy petting than the average mainland romance, but she is as emotionally uninvolved as her co-star. Chen carries enough hauteur to leave her mark in her limited scenes as a master maneuverer. She makes a memorably hawkish counterpart to Chapman To’s reptilian manager in “Diva,” Hong Kong helmer Heiward Mak’s wittier, more perceptive take on the downside of stardom by Hong Kong helmer Heiward Mak.
Tech credits, by core members of the Hong Kong crew behind “Bride Wars,” are serviceable. Kokei Leung’s glossy lensing affords a glimpse of Shanghai’s hip new architecture, in addition to the usual landmarks. Eddie Chung’s schmaltzy elevator music fills in nearly every gap between dialogue, while the Mandopop hits Li belts out are nothing like the edgy, original music he claims to be writing; when he improvises a tacky tune on the piano with a black blues band, it’s as out of place as the idea of Justin Bieber jamming with Muddy Waters.
The Chinese title, which roughly means “Palpitating Star,” puns on the proverbial expression “Heart throbbing with passion.”