REVIEW: Su Mi Ma Sen, Love (2009)

sumimasenlove_posterA chance meeting leads to a day of romance in this odd, modest little drama from Taiwan. Broadly akin to an Asian remake of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), director Lin Yu-hsien adds an unusual level of metatextuality to its simple charms.

Japanese actress Chie Tanaka, who found unexpected success in Taiwan’s film industry, plays a Japanese actress named Chie Tanaka – who found unexpected success as an actor when she moved to Taiwan. Exhausted by the constant demands of her agent, Chie heads to the southern city of Kaohsiung for a day off. When she accidentally loses her wallet, and all of her money, she bumps into Wu Huai-chung – a projectionist with aspirations to become a film director, played by local actor Wu Huai-chung.

I warned it got metatextual.

Like Before Sunrise before it, Su Mi Ma Sen, Love sees two young people spontaneously meet and strike up an immediate rapport. They are immediately attracted to one another, and spend an entire day amiably wandering a city while deep in conversation. Also like Before Sunrise, the film relies heavily on the quality of those conversations and the strength of its actors to make things work. Lin helps that process along by keeping things to the point and tightened with brevity – the entire feature is less than 80 minutes long. This is a simple story, lightly told, and spruced up with likeable characters and a very photogenic setting.

Chie Tanaka makes a big impact: attractive, charming, and with an immediately obvious screen presence. After her Taiwan debut Cape No. 7 – also for director Lin Yu-hsien – broke box office records, she became a bigger star in Taiwan than back in Japan. She provides a naturally warm influence that helps to sell the film’s whirlwind romance. Wu Huai-chung feels a little more grounded, and in some respects a little foolish – as a young male cinema employee with aspirations of becoming a director himself, he fills a very stereotypical niche.

Lin shoots on a low budget with an awful lot of handheld photography, which gives an immediacy that suits the personal focus. Kaohsiung, a port town and Taiwan’s southernmost city, is an attractive backdrop; the film scored additional funding from the local government for shooting there.

A side element to the film sees Wu gets Chie to write her name and number on the NT$500 note he gives her, arguing that if they are fated to go out with one another the note will magically return to him. Through the rest of the story the note is periodically revealed moving from wallet to cash register and back, coincidentally experiencing a range of near-misses with Wu. It is an unnecessary addition, not to mention a direct lift from Peter Chesholm’s relatively weak romantic comedy Serendipity (2001). Lin should have trusted his characters more to support the narrative.

Su Mi Ma Sen, Love is sweet and mildly entertaining, but ultimately a rather disposable distraction. It is best viewed by devotees of Chinese language romance movies – the requisite climactic flashback montage comes part-and-parcel – or anyone looking to scope out the laidback vibe of Kaohsiung. Everybody else has better viewing options elsewhere.

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