The cultivated charm of Italy’s cities and the rugged beauty of its countryside provide appealing backdrops for the romantic contrivances of Only You, a slight concoction which casts Tang Wei and Liao Fan as will they/won’t they protagonists whose elaborately arranged ‘meet cute’ prompts a soul searching journey from Milan to Florence. Produced by Feng Xiaogang, this cooperation between mainland China studio Huayi Brothers and Columbia Pictures is actually a remake of the latter’s 1994 release of the same name, which served as a lightweight vehicle for a post-Oscar victory Marisa Tomei and a pre-Marvel superstardom Robert Downey Jr. For this new version, director Zhang Hou tweaks the humour and sentiment of Norman Jewison’s original to suit Chinese taste, but largely replays its fanciful tale of a hopeless romantic who jets off to Europe on a mission to meet the total stranger who may be her soulmate.
At a young age, Beijing veterinarian Fang Yuan (Tang) was told by two fortunetellers that she would marry a man called “Song Kunming”, which is not the name of the eligible dentist to whom she is engaged. Taking a telephone message from a college friend of her fiancée who is unable to keep a social arrangement, Fang discovers that he is actually speaking to a Song Kunming and that he is at the airport to take a flight to Italy. Fang impulsively flies out to Milan with her married best friend Li Xiaotang (Su Yan) along for the ride to temporarily escape domestic boredom. At first, Fang’s plan goes smoothly as they check into the same hotel as Song and find out where he will be dining later on. However, things go awry when Fang is unable to get a proper look at the man she believes to be her romantic destiny because of the drunken behavior of a group of AC Milan fans. Wandering the streets, she encounters chivalrous expat Feng Dali (Liao) who falls for Fang at first sight and claims to be Song Kunming in order to spend the evening with her, but soon feels guilty and admits the truth. A broken-hearted Fang decides to return home, but Feng insists on making amends by driving her to Florence where, his contacts have informed him, the real Song will be staying for a few days.
The setup makes the rest of the film a bit redundant as the second half is driven only by the otherwise level-headed Fang clutching to the notion that fortunetellers have correctly predicted her ideal life partner, even though she is evidently smitten with Feng, despite his deception. In an undemanding mood, however, it’s easy to suspend disbelief when the scenery is so picturesque: this is a rare overseas-set commercial Chinese film that recognises the fine line between postcard imagery and full-blown travel brochure with Zhang favouring Italy’s natural or historic splendor over consumer-orientated luxury. Culture clash clichés are kept to a relative minimum with Fang and Li portrayed as capable global travellers while the film’s only major foreign stereotypes are the hotel concierge who claims that, “all Chinese look the same”, and the AC Milan fans who turn violent when they mistake Fang for an Inter Milan supporter.
Much of the humour instead comes from efforts of the gruff and slightly roguish Feng to win over the spunky but vulnerable Fang, with the engaging chemistry between Lioa and Tang somewhat diluted by a pedestrian screenplay that only finds room for a modicum of the requisite verbal sparring. As with most travelogue films, Only You was probably as much of a pleasant diversion for its leads as it will be for its intended audience since it comes after both have undertaken more demanding roles – Tang recently appeared in Ann Hui’s The Golden Era (2014) and Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015) while Liao was awarded the Best Actor prize at the Berlin Film Festival for his performance as a haunted ex-cop in Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014).
Only You does not strive to reinvent the romantic-comedy wheel, but it does offer something a bit different in its take on the Chinese diaspora. Feng has been living in Italy for five years, is fluent in the language, has formed friendships and business relationships in the local community, learnt his craft from an Italian mentor, and has comfortably settled into a European way of life. What can be seen as a trace of his Chinese identity – as an antiques dealer, he supplies items to a salesman in Shanghai rather than pursuing his time-consuming and less lucrative dream of art restoration – is a decision that has kept him from true fulfillment. What we see of Fang’s existence in Beijing is restricted to the confines of an upscale apartment where her dreams are being smothered by the blandness of designer living, while her fiancée is positioned in a distant manner, often to the edge of the frame or partially obscured. If most mainland crowd-pleasers with a travel element emphasize homecoming in order to reaffirm a Chinese way of life, Only You raises the possibility of a fresh start in Europe – not a radical option when its genre is considered as a universal product, but a welcome development at national level.
Like its Hollywood model, which was also released when domestic appetite for its genre was at its peak, Only You will be forgotten as soon as the next star-powered romantic-comedy is dropped into China’s multiplexes, but should at least prove fleetingly satisfying for its target audience or admirers of its charismatic leads.