NYAFF Review: ‘This Is Not What I Expected’

I didn’t expect to like it.

I consider myself a pretty open-minded guy. I read a lot, I watch a lot of movies, and I try not to shut myself out from new experiences or categorically dismiss things. That being said, I categorically don’t like rom-com’s. Never have, never will. (Even the most open-minded of us have to draw the line somewhere.) So when I say I liked a rom-com (I shuddered writing that), there must be something really special about it. Maybe it’s an expertly crafted movie; maybe it’s got an unmissable performance; or, maybe it’s just got a lot of heart.

This Is Not What I Expected has a heart in spades. It’s such a strange little movie — an odd mishmash of styles that, in clashing, complement each other.

So here’s the setup: Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a neurotic, obsessive-compulsive, germaphobe, young, and dashing CEO of a multinational corporation that buys up hotels and turns them into “international standard” lodgings (whatever that means). He also happens to be a foodie. And not just a foodie, but a foodie to the extreme (even that old college staple, packaged ramen noodles, he prepares to the highest standard). He has no qualms about spitting out food he finds unsatisfactory right in front of the chef who made it.

As he’s leaving a meeting, he finds a young woman (Dongyu Zhou) defacing his car. It’s not long before this woman, a chef named Gu, realizes that she’s defacing the wrong car (she was looking for the car belonging to her best friend’s cheating boyfriend). Lu tells her to make arrangements to have his car repainted like new by a certain time or he’ll call the police. (She doesn’t, and he doesn’t follow through on his threat.)

Now, Gu happens to be a chef at the hotel Lu is looking to buy. She also happens to be the only chef who’s food he can stand. In fact, he loves her food and only allows her to cook his meals. Her identity as the chef, of course, isn’t known to Lu.

But just because Lu doesn’t know Gu’s his mystery chef doesn’t mean he doesn’t know she works at the hotel. Throughout the first act, she keeps inadvertently causing trouble for him: she falls down drunk onto his balcony, which, due to events involving Lu’s germaphobic tendencies and a suitcase, land him in the clink; she accidentally unleashes a horde of hornets on him; she makes him look like a fool in a high-profile online interview; and more. In time though, Lu learns that Gu, the woman he wants less than nothing to do with, is his mystery chef.

This being a rom-com, you can probably guess what happens next. They begin to form a relationship with Gu’s cooking, which, somewhat implausibly, involves Lu going to her house every evening to have dinner (her treat, of course) and… to sleep there? (Well, all right, I guess. Although I’ll admit this pushed the bounds of believability for me. But what’s a rom-com without a little creep factor?) And following that, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that they grow closer — not quite lovers, not even quite friends, but more than just a business arrangement — and then go through the “dark middle chapters”: the requisite not-quite-lovers quarrels and “he loves me, he loves me not” to do. And it should be even less of a surprise that they end up working it out in the end.

Everything about this movie should grate my nerves, but… it doesn’t. For the first half at least, I really, really liked it. The plotting’s loose and there’s some slight sloppiness in the filmmaking technique (which is forgivable; this is director Derek Hui’s first feature outing following a respectable career in editing), but as I said it’s got heart. The characters are extremely likable, even old Lu Jin in his own curmudgeonly way, and there’s a goofy sensibility with a style to match that runs from beginning to end (not to mention a great soundtrack) that really sets it apart from similar movies. I must admit I laughed out loud more than once (and more than twice) at some of the clever dialogue and screwball antics.

Unfortunately, the film loses its way in the second act. It’s not because of any fault in the content of the story (although the high emotional stakes felt a bit unearned), but that in telling this part of the story This Is Not What I Expected loses its charm. All of the quirkiness is sucked right out, and it plods along at the pace and tone of pretty much any standard rom-com. Which is a shame, but the movie is anything but a standard rom-com for the first fifty minutes or so.

Thankfully, the film still has some laurels to rest on thanks to good first impression and the strength of its cast. Kaneshiro and Zhou fit their roles perfectly, and have a chemistry and charisma that goes a long way in carrying the movie through its weaker parts.

Still, I enjoyed my time with the film, even smiling a bit when our main characters wind up together in the end (of course). For just under two hours of lightweight entertainment, you could do much worse.

I’ve always felt that there are some forms of art that are more revealing of one’s personality than others. For my money, it’s music and cuisine. More so than films, plays, novels, and paintings, there’s something about songs and food that cuts right to the quick of the inner self. There’s years of experience and raw emotion that’s gone into defining one’s tastes of these things, so that when you open up about the kind of music you like to listen to or the kind of food you like to eat, you’ve just given a glimpse into the inner workings of your brain. And from listening to the way those gears turn, an entire history can be inferred.

In the film, Lu even he likes to eat alone because “eating is a very personal thing.” Maybe that’s why I (mostly) liked This Is Not What I Expected so much. For all its great, goofy style, the bond shared between Lu Jin and Gu over her cooking captured the essence of what I described above in a way that felt honest.

We screened the film at the New York Asian Film Festival.

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