Taking a leaf from “84, Charing Cross Road,” Xue Xiaolu’s “Book of Love” centers on a Macau casino hostess and L.A. realtor who fall in love on paper rather than in the flesh. For a romantic comedy, there’s almost no spark or intimacy; instead, it boasts more gambling and swindling than Wong Jing’s “From Vegas to Macau” trilogy. But the emotional journeys of two opportunists losing their bearings in cities overrun by mainland big-spenders prove more engaging. Piggybacking on Xue’s sophomore hit “Finding Mr. Right,” the film, which reunites co-stars Tang Wei and Wu Xiubo, has secured releases in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, though its appeal may not translate to non-Chinese viewers.
Xue’s last film was a sleeper that grossed $79 million, cementing the romantic comedy as a most lucrative genre in China’s burgeoning commercial market. She set a trend by referencing “Sleepless in Seattle” in a way that acknowledges how China devours American mainstream culture. Here, she invokes the chaste, slow-burning affinity between New York writer Helene Hanff and English antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel, chronicled in Hanff’s 1970 book “84, Charing Cross Road.” It’s an interesting cross-cultural premise to be sure, although with the Chinese population buried headlong in the phone app We Chat, a story of two people bonding over handwritten missives gushing with classical literary quotations is too quaint to hold water.
The screenplay, co-written by Mia Jiao, who penned Cao Baoping’s excellent coming-of-age drama “Einstein & Einstein,” addresses such intergenerational problems as the isolation of elderly immigrants or the antisocial behavior of “parachute kids,” reflecting the sensitivity Xue demonstrated both in her directorial debut “Ocean Heaven” and her screenplay for Chen Kaige’s “Together” (both father-son melodramas).
In an introductory voiceover, Jiao Jiao (Tang), who works as a casino publicist, asserts that Macau’s gaming revenue exceeds Vegas’ by sevenfold. Sadly the city’s prosperity eludes her. Not only does her gambling addiction always land her in debt, but she’s shortchanged by every man she meets, as when she takes out a loan to help a math prodigy classmate (Lu Yi).
Over in L.A., real estate agent Daniel (Wu) is enjoying the windfall of mainlanders flocking to buy homes in upscale neighborhoods so their kids could get into elite schools and colleges. He comes across a lovely century-old house and at once sees lucrative redevelopment potential. He befriends the octogenarian owners, Mr. Lin (Paul Chin Pei) and his wife (Wu Yanshu), acting like a surrogate son.
Jiao has remarked that Chinese people’s favorite pursuits are gambling and property speculation, and to that end, Xue throws in lots of casino and realty know-how and jargon to mildly amusing effect. She also evokes the unnaturally heightened thrill of conspicuous consumption, which breeds a sense of smug entitlement. As Jiao and Daniel both try to make a living on the margins of that privileged segment in mainland society, it’s not surprising that they buy into the mood of excess and wish this ostentatious wealth would rub off on them.
One empathizes with their social complexes since neither could bring themselves to be ruthless. In spite of his initially mercenary motives, Daniel’s growing attachment to the Lins ends up as the film’s most solid emotional backbone. Likewise, Jiao’s dalliance with a client (Wang Zhiwen) poignantly underlines her insecurity.
Still, when it comes to plotting their epistolary meet-cute, the details are muddled and the passage to intimacy forced and insipid. A corny stunt has them hold conversations with one another’s imagined personas — an insufferably tweedy professor and a waif-like schoolgirl — where the hideous visual effects alone reduce the scenes to farce. Midway through the film, serendipity brings them both to Las Vegas, but what ought to be the climax of their date is instead overshadowed by other developments. Even when the denouement springs a supposedly clever surprise, the mechanics of the plot device remain iffy.
Just as there was little chemistry in their previous partnerships, they evince even lower intensity in their long-distance courtship. With dissimilar performance styles, the expressive Tang and the muted Wu seem better off moving in their own narrative spheres. It’s up to the diverse supporting cast to provide a fuller emotional fabric, and Chin is especially delightful as the cranky old codger with a mushy heart. Other Hong Kong veterans, such as Kara Hui and Sam Lee as Jiao’s stepmother and debt-collector respectively, also have more screen presence than the toneless Wu.
Like “Finding Mr. Right,” the production employs an ace Hong Kong crew but cannot dress up the story’s inherent tackiness. Shooting in Chongqing, Macau, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and London, Chan Chi-ying’s cinematography suggests stylistic disarray, while Cheung Ka-fai’s editing lets the plot meander.
Although the story has nothing to do with Xue’s previous hit, it strains for some connection by the Chinese title, which translates as “From Beijing to Seattle: The Not-Dumb Love Letter.”