The makers of Due West: Our Sex Journey were given two difficult tasks: to make a cohesive film out of two popular Internet short stories and several essays, and to translate author Xiang Xi Murakami Haruki's first-person narration into cinematic language. Fortunately for writer and first-time director Mark Wu (co-writer of 3D Sex and Zen and the Lan Kwai Fong films), Xiang Xi's short stories of decadence and girl chasing offer plenty of potential for category III-style sex comedy goodness. Unfortunately for those unfamiliar with the ultra-popular anthology, Wu and co-writer Lam Fung were more concerned with pleasing Xiang Xi's fans and paying respect to the source material, and they did so in a completely misguided manner.
Intended to ape the style of the real Haruki Murakami, the writings of Xiang Xi Murakami (obviously a pseudonym) went from Internet forum posts to Hong Kong's new literary sensation. Xiang Xi’s work became popular largely because the writer showed an ability to simultaneously ridicule and tickle his target audience with a cynical view on behaviors like visiting pornography sites or giving a father advice on how to avoid police raids in mainland China by visiting prostitutes in Macau. His readers – mostly male, of course – may feel like they connect with Xiang Xi's world view, but the humor comes from the fact that the joke is actually often on them.
However, the filmmakers – also including Sex and Zen creators Christopher Sun and Stephen Shiu Jr. as producers – seem to realize that they have to appeal directly to those very people. As a result, most of Due West is a very faithful adaption of the short stories "What I Talk about When I Talk about Clubbing" and "Dongguan Wood." Wu and Lam only needed to produce about half a film's worth of original writing, combining their own material with excerpts from essays in the book.
Even though Xiang Xi meant for each story to have a different narrator, the filmmakers put all the words into the mouth of a single protagonist: Frankie (Justin Cheung). In the vein of coming-of-age films like Yesteryou Yesterme Yesterday, Due West traces Frankie's journey from a curious high school virgin to his experiences with various girlfriends – including high school crush Zoey (Mo Qiwen) and prudish flight attendant Zeta (Celia Kwok). After realizing true love isn't enough to satisfy his primal needs, Frankie seeks no-strings-attached sex north of the (Hong Kong) border with Shenzhen club girl Xiao Yu (Jeana Ho) and busty prostitute with a heart of gold™ Xiao Si (Daniella Wang).
Like the book, the entire film is narrated by Frankie, who analyzes literally every event in the story for the audience. This narrative device makes sense in literature because the narration is simultaneously telling the story to the readers. In film, however, the device simply reinforces things we can already see with snarky and borderline irritating commentary. The result is like having an annoying neighbor in the cinema giving you a commentary you never asked for. Note to Mark Wu: having naked girls in your film doesn't equal visual storytelling.
Due West runs a painful 119 minutes, a terribly self-indulgent length for a sex comedy. Neither the writers nor the film's editor seem to know the meaning of "economical storytelling," dragging out every moment in order to remain faithful to the source material. However, Wu fails to convey Xiang Xi's deadpan cynicism in his direction, having Cheung deliver his lines in a tone that tries too hard to be comedic. Those familiar with the material know exactly what's coming and therefore won't feel the drag, but everyone else (i.e., most people reading this review) will sit there waiting for Frankie to shut up so the story can get moving.
Perhaps the ultimate problem with Due West is that it's made by people who are obsessed with satisfying their target audience rather than making sure all the elements add up to a film that will amuse everyone. Those that want Cantonese profanity will get Mark Wu as a character that spends half his screen time swearing in Cantonese; those that want a faithful adaptation of the book will get two-thirds of it read to them verbatim; those that want emotional depth will even get a forced romantic moment between Frankie and Xiao Si, complete with a slow-motion kiss set to a well-known 90's Cantopop ballad.
Due West does several things just fine: the performances are mostly OK (though Justin Cheung and Mark Wu border on annoying), the sex scenes aren't terrible, and it's certainly better than last year's 3D Sex and Zen. However, many will probably have trouble getting past the terrible pacing, cheap production values and bad comedic timing. Those people will also probably leave the cinema scratching their heads, wondering how this thin, pointless and borderline misogynistic story could possibly become an internet phenomenon. Xiang Xi Murakami Haruki is a witty writer who understands satire. Mark Wu unfortunately does not. (Kevin Ma, 2012)