This Is Not What I Expected
Written by Yuan Li and Yimeng Xu
Based on the book Finally I Get You by Lan Bai Se
Directed by Derek Hui Wang-Yu
You better eat before you sit down to watch This Is Not What I Expected, because the lavish and constant footage of the porniest of food porn is enough to send any viewer’s stomach rumbling (spoiler alert, even the main characters have growling stomachs in the final scene!) From the opening shot of a steak on the grill to the intricately timed details for the perfect instant ramen bowl, the food becomes the media the rest of the romantic comedy is built around.
Let’s just ignore the implausibility of parts of the plot (that’s par for the course in a romantic comedy!) and just focus on the chemistry of the leads, the infusion of the plot elements, and whether the male character goes into stalker creeper mode. Things do get a bit messed up later on down the line, but it is nothing an extra line or two couldn’t have fixed. This is Derek Hui’s feature debut, usually spending time as an editor (Wu Xia, Man of Tai Chi). He does a some neat sequences and montages that give it a visual edge over the average romantic comedy, but it also made me greedy for more.
Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dong-Yu – Under the Hawthorn Tree) is introduced scratching rude words into the hood of a car, revenge on her friend’s cheating boyfriend (her friend Xu Zhaodi is played by model Ming Xi) It turns out to be the wrong car, belonging to billionaire investor Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro – K-20: Legend of the Mask), who after some convincing promises not to call the police if she gets the hood repaired at his preferred shop before a certain time. Her life isn’t going well, as her boss who is also her secret boyfriend dumps her, and she feels her chef job is going nowhere. Gu Shengnan is 29, while in the US there is pressure for ladies to marry before they are 30, in China it is even worse where 29 is considered by many to be so old the women are a lost cause.
Lu Jin is rapidly taking over hotel chains across the globe. The only thing that is larger than his enthusiasm for corporate dominance is his enthusiasm for good food. Lu Jin spends time in the hotels before converting them into what will make the most money, also spends time sampling the food from the staff, which is rarely up to par (he even has his assistant block out the views of him spitting out the subpar food in disgust from the cooks. At his latest acquisition, Lu Jin runs through the entire staff until it is Gu Shengnan’s turn. She makes a dish by discovering what he wants through his rejected dishes. Thus begins a secret rivalry where Gu Shengnan is pushed to the limit creating new dishes for Lu Jin, while he tries to discover who the secret chef is. He doesn’t realize it is her at first, but does know she is on staff at the hotel after she drunkenly falls on his balcony and he tries to leave her in a suitcase in an elevator, which ends up with him in jail until she can explain he wasn’t doing nefarious things to her! Hijinks really do ensue!
This is Not What I Expected is charming, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhou Dongyu have great chemistry together, though the film spends most of its time setting her up as a bad luck charm (both for him and for herself.) The biggest problem with that is Takeshi Kaneshiro is just so charming you can’t really imagine him thinking ill of Zhou Dongyu even as he gets in trouble around her. Zhou Dongyu can pull off the “I hate him but also have feelings” thing a bit better, but she also should have hordes of dudes running after her, age 29 or not. There is some playful fun when it is revealed later that Lu Jin has a private chef (who was on vacation) that returns and is a woman, Shengnan and her having an obvious other woman in the relationship thing going on despite neither actually dating him at the time. Shengnan has an older dog named Boss who spends most of the film being a happy older dog, I loved that they used the dog being older to build conversations off of instead of some cheap drama with a dead dog (Boss does NOT die! Don’t worry, but spoilers) The talk of taking care of an older pet and trying to make it as happy as it made you strikes home with people like me who grew up with animals constantly around me. Lu Jin realizes he had a dog when he was really young and his dad just got rid of it as it was getting in the way of teaching his son to be a ruthless billionaire. The food sequences are amazing, not since the Hannibal series have I seen so much good food cooked on screen, even the things I know I would hate looked delicious. There is an amazing sequence with some ill-prepared blowfish that is just off enough that both Lu Jin and Shengnan start hallucinating and strolling down the street holding an umbrella convinced it is raining (it isn’t) and randomly yelling, while confused passersby try not to make eye contact.
After the hotel business deal finally closes (delayed due to Lu Jin spending too long at the hotel sampling the food), he basically moves into Shengnan’s apartment to have her cook dinner and then sleep. At this point the normal romantic comedy things get stretched a bit beyond reason. I can’t think of anyone who would just let a billionaire move in with them and expect them to cook for them each night. It is never stated if he is paying her for this, but she does complain that the extra time spent cooking for him is interfering with her work. This seems like an artifact of the book realizing that it was unrealistic for him to spend so much time at the hotel but also keeping them together, but doesn’t really work on the screen.
I did try ramen noodles as instructed by the film, complete with down to the exact second timing, and it is an improvement over cooking it in general, (but is pretty close to how I already do it, so I guess I’m already above the curve!) This is Not What I Expected is fun, does enough to pop above the rest, but doesn’t sprint into super star area. Still, it’s a good watch and was the best of the three films I saw for SFFilm’s Hong Kong series this year, and the only one I’ve mentioned to others.
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