Apolitical Romance (Taiwan, 2013) [NYAFF 2014]

A pleasing romantic-comedy peppered with cultural tension, Apolitical Romance wastes little time in getting to the ‘meet cute’ that is necessary for its central dynamic. Yu-Cheng (Bryan Chang Shu-hao) is a mid-level Taipei tourist board employee who has been tasked with writing a manual to cover the differences in social etiquette between Taiwan and mainland China. Not knowing anyone from the mainland, Yu-Cheng has put together a draft full of assumptions which is rubbished by his boss, then given a week to deliver a new version. Sitting down to dinner at a night market dumpling stall, he encounters Qin Lang (Huang Lu), a brash tourist from Beijing who is searching for her grandmother’s childhood sweetheart whom she lost contact with once he was conscripted into Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang troops in the 1940s. A mutually beneficial exchange is soon arranged: Yu-Cheng offers to help her on the condition that she helps him with his work assignment. However, the two are seemingly complete opposites, with Yu-Cheng being a model of polite reserve while Qin is outspoken and impatient. As she does not have a hotel reservation, she ends up staying at Yu-Cheng’s apartment and is soon ridiculing his collection of childhood memorabilia, although romantic feelings soon emerge.

This promising debut feature from Hsieh Chun-yi handles its politics as lightly as its romance and relies heavily on the charms of its leads whose engaging chemistry overcomes the general predictability of the culture clash scenario. Familiar to the art-house crowd from her intensely demanding roles as a kidnapped college graduate in Blind Mountain (2007) and a dissatisfied youth in She, a Chinese (2009), indie star Huang here shows considerable flair for comedy while still creating a wholly credible, sometimes contradictory character. As with most romantic-comedies, Apolitical Romance is at its best when its protagonists are sparring with one another, with the respective citizenships of the mismatched pair leading to some amusing exchanges that are riddled with stereotypes and misperceptions. Qin often behaves in the manner of the dreaded mainland tourist in that she clashes with the locals over how to speak Mandarin, refers to Taiwan as a ‘province’, and starts singing the anthem of the Chinese Communist Party while visiting Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. However, her heartfelt determination gradually wins over the more diplomatic Yu-Cheng, who in turn impresses Qin with his resourcefulness, even if it takes her a while to see past his ‘timid’ nature in order to appreciate his efficiency.

As is also the norm for the genre, the snappy pace slows to a crawl in the third act as Yu-Cheng and Qin struggle to acknowledge their feelings for one another due to a myriad of potential complications, but its not a particularly damaging shift as Apolitical Romance is never in danger of outstaying its welcome at a brief 88 minutes. Until this point, much of the film’s romantic mood comes from their meetings with various elderly couples – Qin has the name of her grandmother’s lost love, but not an address – who tell stories of how they fell for one another, personal narratives that are based on simple emotion yet also shaped by the political circumstances of their youth. Aside from the engaging performances, much of the film’s easy-going appeal is a result of Hsieh’s unfussy approach: cinematographer Jordan Schiele ensures that Taipei and surrounding locations look nice but never become overly touristic, while the characters reveal themselves casually rather than through emotional grandstanding. Apolitical Romance does not try to reinvent the rom-com wheel, but does show that popular genre can be a great way to diffuse potentially dicey cultural issues, especially when tackled by a pair of truly natural performers.

Apolitical Romance is showing on July 13 at Asia Society. The full schedule for NYAFF 2014 can be found here.