Thursday, June 1, 2017

Didi’s Dreams: Sibling Rivalry in Taiwan

Shangguan Didi and Shangguan Lingling are like the Taiwanese Redgraves or Gishes, except these acting sisters have been long estranged. Frankly, Lingling the box-office superstar, would question her sister’s thespian credentials. After years of scuffling, she has finally broken out as a star of viral comedy videos and demeaning game shows. Yet, they are poised to co-star in a massive new historical epic, until fate threatens to intervene once again in Kevin Tsai’s Didi’s Dreams, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Didi aspires to acting stardom, but she dreams of Xu Chunmei, the proprietor of a galactic noodle shop. She is convinced these dreams mean something, possibly linking her to another dreamer. She and Lingling were once close. In fact, Lingling largely raised Didi after the untimely death of their mother. Yet, when her career took off, she refused to use her connections on Didi’s behalf, insisting she follow the unwritten “rules.” Didi’s resulting career frustrations ultimately led to bitterness and a long-term rupture in their relationship. Now her world mostly consists of embarrassing auditions and the consolation of her loyal best friend and lover, Kouzi.

Ironically, just as Didi starts to breakout, Lingling’s career is threatened by an adultery scandal. In a further tragic irony, soon after Didi accepts a role alongside her sister, she receives some distressing news. Meanwhile, Xu’s love life is also pretty disappointing.

The very first scene, featuring Xu, is really wild. Soon thereafter, when the first act focuses on Didi and her humiliations, it gets uncomfortably cringey. Yet, rather counter-intuitively, as the film cranks up the tragedy it also becomes more endearing. In fact, Tsai manages to have his cake and eat it too, giving viewers both a tearjerker ending and a sentimental, romantic sign-off. The way he does so would feel like a cheat if he did not commit so wholeheartedly to it.

Dee Hsu (a.k.a. Little S., Tsai’s partner on the popular Taiwanese talk show Kangsi Coming) is quite winning as Didi and the mysterious Xu. She plays the former with plenty of pluck, but also believably conveys all the messy and confused emotions roiling inside her. Lin Chi-ling is aptly cast as the ice queen Shangguan, even if she doesn’t quite stick the landing for her big pay-off speech.

Yet, arguably the biggest star of the picture is the work of production designer Kuo Chih-da’s team, creating a flamboyantly stylish interstellar noodle joint that earns comparison to the The Fifth Element. It is hard to believe such a transparently manipulative film works, but it does, largely thanks to Hsu (in both roles). Recommended for fans of happy-sad love stories, Didi’s Dreams opens tomorrow (6/2) in New York, at the Regal E-Walk.

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