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New York, New York

New York, New York

Du Juan and Ethan Ruan in New York, New York.

Chinese: 紐約紐約
Year: 2016  
Director: Luo Dong
Producer: Zhang Dajun, Stanley Kwan Kam-Pang, Wang Zhonglei
Writer: Jimmy Ngai, Lu Mei, Ha Zhichao

Ethan Ruan, Du Juan, Miu Kiu-Wai, Cecilia Yip Tung, Yuan Wen-Kang, William Yang, Peter Greene, Isabelle Huang, Jin Au-Yeung

The Skinny:

1990s-set drama about American dreams in China has a screenplay rich with potential, but the direction doesn’t deliver upon that promise. Ethan Ruan and Du Juan are fine in the lead roles, despite their characters not fully making sense.

by Kozo:
Yet another film looking back at west-obsessed Chinese in the 1990s, New York, New York arrives courtesy of producer Stanley Kwan, who backs up first-time director Luo Dong for this promising drama that eventually doesn’t live up to its potential. Ethan Ruan stars as Lu Tu, a hotel captain at the high-class Gordon Hotel in Shanghai. It’s 1993 and Lu Tu is at the top of his game, which means he kicks ass at concierge duties, has the respect of guests and management, and enjoys the adulation of his subordinate bellhops. He’s also a popular ladies man, but Lu Tu’s wandering ways get tested by guide/escort Juan (Du Juan), who enchants Lu Tu with her beautiful looks if not her incessantly cool demeanor. The two share a one-night stand before the revelation of Lu Tu’s tomcatting ways impels Juan to avoid a serious relationship. And yet, months later, after crossing paths in and around the Gordon Hotel, the two progress to become exclusive lovers.

However, a threat arrives from America. Longtime Hong Kong actor Michael Miu plays Mr. Mi, a US-based high-roller who’s in Shanghai to recruit for the Shanghai Grand Hotel, a planned luxury hotel in New York. Mr. Mi is looking to bring 200 visas on offer for Shanghai workers – which naturally makes everyone and his uncle salivate. Everyone except Lu Tu, that is. Despite his parents having moved to the U.S., Lu Tu doesn’t believe the grass is greener in New York City, and believes dreams can still be achieved in Shanghai. Sadly, most of the bellboys think differently – and so does Juan. With so many friends and his girl stumping for a move out west, and Mr. Mi showing exceptional interest in a skilled concierge like Lu Tu coordinating the hiring, he eventually comes around. Lu Tu signs up for the big move, thereby solidifying his future with his beloved Juan, and even setting up a reunion with his parents, right? Good times should soon be here.

However, good times will not happen, and the audience knows that from minute one. New York, New York starts in media res, with Juan arriving in New York in 1994 along with Mr. Mi. Within hours of their arrival, he tells her the Shanghai Grand Hotel is not happening, and the 200 visas won’t be given out, and also introduces her to Downey (Peter Greene), a member of the Mafia whose interest in Juan is obvious. So, Juan’s American Dream is fulfilled with her becoming the moll to a balding Mafioso – but is this who she really is? Juan’s motives are questioned throughout the film, and emphasized in voiceover delivered by Lu Tu’s subordinate Kun (William Yang), who explicitly calls Juan a “golddigger.” Oddly, Du Juan plays Juan much more sympathetically; her character seems to act out of romantic petulance and jealousy more than materialism or manipulation. The actress and her icy beauty contain generous depths, but not a great enough range to bring this complex character – nor the themes she represents – to life.

Overall, Ethan Ruan is better as Lu Tu. Ruan possesses a cocksure charm that stops gratefully short of smarm, and he convinces as both a smooth ladies man and a righteous, responsible worker. Lu Tu is a character that goes against his personal biases at the behest of those around him, and while he’s eventually vindicated, the cost is everything he cares about. There’s a worthy character and story here, and rich themes to explore, but the film can’t capitalize. Director Luo Dong helms in too cursory a manner, skipping over subjects that would be interesting – Lu Tu’s concierge activities, the specifics of Mr. Mi’s scam, the growth in Lu Tu and Mr. Mi’s friendship, Juan’s assimilation to America – in favor of Juan and Lu Tu’s romantic sparring, and an extended side story involving Juan’s boss, talent manager Ms. Jin (Cecilia Yip). There are interesting nuggets in these stories, but they feel tangential to the main drama of people selling out, or getting swindled, in their desire to move west.

The screenplay, co-written by regular Stanley Kwan collaborator Jimmy Ngai, is actually decent. The script includes smart dialogue that gets at the film’s themes without spelling them out in speeches. Yet, quite frequently, Luo Dong doesn’t complement the dialogue with action, almost as if he expected the words to carry the film. They don’t; New York, New York needs a concert of acting, dialogue and action to sell itself – but most of all, it needs direction. Luo Dong has some of the style down – club outings and montages convey the period and the characters’ desires, and the frequent lensing through windows and mirrors gives the film an enjoyable, if gratuitous artfulness. But, while Luo lets the audience know the story’s direction early, he never leverages that knowledge to create narrative tension. Ultimately, Luo Dong fails to create consistent, rising interest in his story and characters – in which case we can put a fork in this thing. Overall, that’s disappointing because there’s potential in the screenplay – it’s the choices and execution that muddy the promise of New York, New York. (Kozo 8/2016)

 Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen