Year: 2017
Director(s): Derek Hui
Writer(s): Li Yuan, Xu Yimeng, Jojo Hui Yuet-chun, Joyce Chan
Region of Origin: China

Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Rating: Unrated
Color, 106 mins

Synopsis: The obsessive CEO of a company meets a ragged chef by chance. They are drawn closer together because of their love for delicacies, yet their personalities clash big time. (Source)

This Is Not What I Expected lives up to its name and then some. Director Derek Hui’s film is a stunning madcap romance bursting with effervescent charm. Though Hui isn’t necessarily rewriting the genre, his ingenuity and creativity are infectious, allowing invention and visual panache to supplant a sincere story. If, like me, you’ve grown an aversion to dime-a-dozen romcoms, you can rest easy knowing that this is a film you didn’t know you wanted. The other plus, of course, is that besides Hui’s dazzling execution, the film is food porn for those with an insatiable craving for exotic dishes, exploring the craft that goes into making each one tell a different story. Tying it all together are stars Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhou Dongyu, a perfect coupling who leap off the screen with loads of chemistry.

Things get off to a rousing start when we first meet Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu). She’s defacing a car with a message meant for a friend’s cheating lover, but naturally has the wrong car. As it turns out, the car belongs to Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), an arrogant, wealthy loaner who happens to be a hotel acquisition specialist. A perfectionist who hates hearing apologies, Lu quickly dismisses Shengnan, hoping to never see her again. When Lu shows up to his next possible hotel, he’s disappointed in everything but a specific dish, something prepared by one of its sous chefs. As a foodie, he demands perfection in every meal and is stunned by not just the meal’s taste, but its attention to thematic detail. Lu attempts to give the hotel a chance based on its mystery chef, who just happens to be Shengnan. Without knowing its her, Lu takes an extended stay at the hotel, ordering dish after dish as the two bond through Shengnan’s meals without ever knowing the truth about their culinary connection. Lu’s possible buyout of the hotel where Shengnan works creates further complications, as the two opposites engage in a series of adversarial encounters yet share a secret bond through the kitchen.

Hui’s film works on a number of fronts, and there’s never a dull moment with its relentless blend of vivid visuals and infectious energy. In terms of culinary delights, close-ups and fast cuts treat us to cooking montages as if they’re action scenes, with Shengnan’s meals advancing the plot through each thoughtful ingredient. As someone who loves food, its fascinating to see a story really capture the vulnerability of our palates, exploring one of our most primal instincts and how our appetites, both figuratively and literally, inform who we are. Hui also takes a look at the idea of food as a shared experience, something easily taken for granted, which is a smart framing device for his tale of unexpected romance. Amidst the commitment woes and fear brought on by self-perceived inadequacy, Hui’s characters swirl around a mix of color, slapstick and mistaken identity, with the film playing out like a joyous chorus we can’t stop ourselves from singing along to.

Bringing it all together, are two performances that burst with charm and wit. Zhou Dongyu steals the show as Shengnan – she’s the film’s heart, but also a ton of fun. There’s a physicality to Zhou’s performance that informs her character, making things almost play out like a song and dance. She treads a myriad of emotions throughout, helping to keep the tone light, while delivering a character who is headstrong despite her insecurity. As Lu Jin, Takeshi Kaneshiro is a perfect foil to Zhou’s frenetic energy. Controlled and aloof, Kaneshiro gives a measured, straight-laced performance, contrasting the film’s deadpan laughs with a few sobering moments. Both stars’ electricity is palpable, and their comedic timing is second to none.

This Is Not What I Expected is too much fun to pass up. Hui’s latest has it all – food, romance, style and heart. Even the most hardened of skeptics may be brought down a notch, with the film’s ability to turn the mundane into an exquisite technicolor dream, a barrage that awakens the senses and leaves us begging for more.

SG