Gong Li

What Women Want (我知女人心)

what women want

What Women Want is another entry in the list of unremarkable remakes of unremarkable movies. In both this version and the Mel Gibson original, a sexist adman acquires a supernatural ability to read women’s minds after he experiences a freak accident. He uses his newfound power for personal and professional gain, trying to boost his stock among his female cohorts as well as his bosses. He gets a shock though when he realizes that women don’t think he’s quite the Romeo he imagines himself to be and when he is passed over for promotion in favor of a newly hired female creative director.

Transplanting the Chicago storyline in Beijing doesn’t seem to have altered the source material as writer-director Chen Daming has generated a near carbon copy of the 2000 film. It turns out that sexism is a universal language and one spoken fluently by people the world over. A film like this one may be even more relevant in the Chinese working place, where some basic legal protections, such as those regarding discriminatory hiring practices, are not always in place. Li Yilong (Gong Li) is a capable businesswoman in every regard, and placing her at the center of the film is not a bad way to draw some attention to the issue.

Another good choice is that of Gong as leading actress. She embodies much of the progressive Chinese woman, or at least the idea of one propagated by the film industry. The international star infuses her role with maturity and class and does so without crystallizing into a glass vase. It’s her first role since the 2006 effects spectacle The Curse of the Golden Flower, and in this pared down movie, Gong fleshes out Yilong with every tool available. Even in the dubbed Cantonese track, she metes out her character’s delight, tenacity, confusion, and anger. Her performance is easily the best thing about this and a welcome reward for the tedium of this two hour exercise.

Yet for all the film does to show what women want, there also appear to be some conflicting messages. Yilong earns the movie points as a female character with emotional depth and a life and career with, but not dependent, on men. This is something women want, but I suspect what they also want is to not have to look like Gong Li. Her figure hugging wardrobe, and that of the other female office workers, of course looks fabulous on her and speaks to one type of female empowerment, but even within the business class, not everyone aspires to be the “beautiful two-legged panther” archetype. Which highlights a problematic moment when an American suitor played by Russell Wong delivers the supposed compliment. Though spoken in English, the line may still be lost in translation as sexually charged animal comparisons doled out on a first date don’t earn favor in my, or any of my female friends’, book.

The gender politics is not where the film suffers most, however. It is simply too long, treading and retreading the same territory. The movie’s supposed cleverness derives from the internal monologues overheard by Sun Zigang (Andy Lau), but this device, not entirely novel to begin with, already begins to lose its force several scenes in. Zigang quickly establishes his reputation as a lecherous sleazeball who tries to smooth talk his way in and out of every situation and soon learns that he is reviled by almost everyone, including his own daughter.

The movie banks on its star power to save it from its own monotony, and while Gong holds up her end of the deal, Lau’s performance could use more emotional charge. He certainly has the star wattage to power the film, but his performance has a tinny ring as he pays more attention to Zigang’s style than to his inner life. The actor gives an alluring show as he slips into fishnets and slides on some ruby red lipstick, but like the character, Lau is too wrapped up in the appearance of things. He may sing and dance better than Mel Gibson, but he can’t generate the tenderness and fallibility to make Zigang a redeemable character.

One thing Lau can do well though is fit comfortably in the swank of Beijing, and director Chen does his best to amplify the film’s gloss and polish. Besides adapting an American story, he also imitates the urban glamour of similar romantic comedies. The movie’s not just a showcase for the modern Chinese woman but also for the modern Chinese city.

(This Mandarin language trailer uses Andy Lau’s voice, but he is dubbed on the Mandarin track on DVD.)

“Slip Away” by Andy Lau:

Released: 2011
Prod: Albert Lee 利雅博; Chris Liu 劉晶
Dir: Chen Daming 陳大明
Writer: Chen Daming 陳大明
Cast: Andy Lau 劉德華; Gong Li 鞏俐; Hu Jing 胡靜; Banny Chen 陳志明; Yuan Li 袁莉; Russell Wong 王盛德; Mavis Pan 潘霜霜; Zhu Zhu 朱珠; Du Juan 杜娟; Li Chengru 李誠儒; Anya 安雅; Tao Jia 陶佳; Osric Chau 周逸之; Wang Deshun 王德順
Time: 116 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2014