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CHEN YU-HSUN: MY MISSING VALENTINE 消失的情人節 (2020) - 2021 New York Asian Film Festiival (Aug. 6-22)

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PATTY LEE, LIU KUAN-TING IN MY MISSING VALENTINE

Frozen in a magic realist Taiwanese rom-com

My Missing Valentine takes us to a rom-com world partly in the spirit of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie, where the quotidian is celebrated and transcended through magical alterations of ordinary reality: the two main characters are plum in the center of everyday life, she a post office employee and he a bus driver. The story revolves around 30-year-old wallflower Yang Hsiao-chi, the postal clerk (played by game, girlish TV hostess Patty Lee), and moves between the Taiwan capital of Taipei and the seacoast town of Dongshi, two completely separate worlds, both everyday, and both characters will spend time at the seaside.

My Missing Valentine may seem slightly odd in the way it manipulates its characters and the way they manipulate each other. Some writers, including a reviewer for The Taipei Times , Han Cheung (though it's more an editorial than a review and he's listed not as film critic but "staff reporter"), have diagnosed its characters' behavior as "stalking" and considered it very inappropriate. This is absurdly literal-minded and misunderstands the wacky rules of romantic comedy; but in any case this is a highly accomplished and much admired piece of work, and was rewarded accordingly with a raft of prizes at the country's Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan's equivalent of the Oscars, including Best Feature and Best Director.

The wallflower-postal clerk Hsiao-Chhi and the oddball bus driver A Tai (Liu Kuan-ting) are each out of sync with the world, unstuck in time but in opposite ways. She is a second or two ahead of everybody and he is a little behind. A funny quick history has shown her jumping the gun at school races, laughing too soon at movies, and so on. Years ago her father went out to buy tofu pudding and never came back. Despite this, Hsiao-Chhi is cheerful, with a warm smile for her customers, but she's lonely. At home, magically a talk-show host, Gecko man, appears at her window and talks to her at end of day. She never has cause to celebrate Valentine's Day, which is coming up again. But while she's walking across town a buff, handsome young man with a moustache, Liu Wen-sen (Duncan Lai), who teaches a free outdoor dance-aerobics class, runs after her and flirts with her and invites her on a date. Later he seems to disappear, though flashbacks or closeups show that he's a con man, lying to people and dating multiple women.

When Hsiao-Chi wakes up later it seems Valentine's Day has passed and she's missed an entire day of time.

A Tai's story is more complicated, intimate, and touching. It would probably be a spoiler to go into his earlier connection to Hsiao-Chi, but they have a special one, it turns out, and she seems to come to appreciate it and care about it, maybe more than about anything else. A Tai from the first has come to the post office every day to mail a letter, which he tries to mail at Hsaio-Chi's desk. His interest in her seems a bit mysterious at first. (Later, it's not.)

Though Hsiao-Chi is the "protagonist," in a way, A Tai assumes a very central role in the second half of the film, when events draw the pair together. One thing that's very funny and fascinating is the way A Tai seems to drive his bus around, or stop it, just as suits his fancy, manipulating the passengers as he likes. This is a preview of a long passage, the most unique in the film, where all over Taiwan people freeze in motion, all except A Tai. (This is a special effects tour de force of no mean proportions.)

Hsaio-Chi is on his bus. He can manipulate people like lego dolls, and shape them in different positions in which they stay. Did I mention he always has a camera with him, and likes to take people's pictures, both to memorialize them and to record their wrongdoings? (The cinematography of Chou Yi-Hsien, with its slightly nostalgic faded colors, is often beautiful, with a sense of posed pictures in it too, and many handsome middle-distance shots of urban and seaside landscapes.)

This snapshot-centric worldview is another charming and peculiar part of the film, especially during the passage when A Tai drives the bus full of frozen-in-place people, including Hsao-Chi, to Dongshi by the sea, and poses time-lapse shots of himself with her in different poses. It's not stalking: it's rom-com magic realism, wistful, sad, and very touching. And finally, after a lot of other stuff, it's looking like the lovers are coming together at the end - just in the very last frame. That's perfection!

To keep the firm grip on our heartstrings the music over the closing credits is the haunting Bee Gees sixties classic "I Started a Joke" sung by Robin Gibb.

The most discerning online review may be that of Steven Ng on Obsessive Cinema Disorder. I found it interesting what he says about the comic potential of the Taiwanese accent. The dialogue brought back good memories (perhaps mistaken) for me, of Takeshi Kaneshiro (who did grow up in Taiwan) in Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express. As Ng notes, this is a movie that would benefit from repeat viewings - and not just for the Taiwanese dialogue. An admiring and thorough review among many niggling and slapdash ones is that of BH for Action.Cut.Review.

My Missing Valentine 消失的情人節, 119 mins., opened in Taiwan Sept. 18, 2020, and featured at Taipei Nov. 7, received 11 nominations at the 57th Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing and Best Director. Also at Hong Kong Asian Film Awards, Seattle; Busan; Chicago; Udine; Neuchâtel; and it was screened for this review as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22), where it was shown Aug. 17, 2021.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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