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Listless in Beijing

The cross-cultural currents of Restless have all the electricity of a low-budget indie

Restless has the unique distinction of being, apparently, the first mainland Chinese-American feature co-production. Given the potential tensions in such a project, it's not surprising that the film carefully avoids even the slightest intimation of politics. There's nothing wrong with this: Restless is billed as a romantic comedy, and most of the best romantic comedies -- from Bringing Up Baby to High Fidelity -- don't exactly throw ideological conflict in our faces. There's no reason why an essentially American film, shot mostly in Beijing, should have to grapple with Tibet or Tiananmen Square. On the other hand, it would have been nice if Restless had grappled with something -- like romance or comedy, for a start.

Okay, maybe that's not fair. It does deal with romantic issues, so perhaps we should charitably consider it a romance, not a romantic comedy with very few laughs.

Writer/director Jule Gilfillan, an American who studied at both USC and the Beijing Film Academy, intertwines two stories. The primary plot concerns Leah (Catherine Kellner), an American expatriate in her late twenties who works as a translator in Beijing. Not unusual for someone of her age, Leah has had a series of unsatisfying relationships with men; she thinks that her current beau, another American by the name of Jeff (Josh Lucas), may be that honest, sensitive man she's searching for -- until she spots him in a passing taxi, furiously making out with another woman.

Leah Quinn (Catherine Kellner) puts a queen-four-to-knight-three move on chess master Sun Zhan (Geng Le).
Arrow Releasing Inc.
Leah Quinn (Catherine Kellner) puts a queen-four-to-knight-three move on chess master Sun Zhan (Geng Le).

Leah doesn't know whether to try to win Jeff back, get revenge or simply ignore him and move on. But she becomes intrigued with the notion of applying the Velvet Trap Strategy, a stratagem usually reserved for the ancient Chinese equivalent of chess. Leah hears about the strategy on television from Sun Zhan (Geng Le), a handsome young chess master whom she then engages for lessons. The exact details of the Velvet Trap Strategy are never made clear, but it seems to involve bluffing or maybe the old bait and switch. One reason this is never quite clear is that, as the performances signal from the start, Leah and Sun Zhan fall for each other in a big way.

While this cross-cultural romance is brewing, the secondary plot follows an arguably more interesting line. Richard Kao (David Wu), a totally assimilated ABC (American-born Chinese) from California, arrives in Beijing on his way to scatter his grandfather's ashes in the rural area where Gramps was born. (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's Cold Fever in 1996 began with a similar premise but took it in far more entertaining and profound directions.) Unfortunately, Richard is such a clunk that he has a disembarking accident at the Beijing airport that leaves him broke and, worse, ashless.

Richard gets in touch with his emergency contact -- none other than Leah, whose mom is friends with his mom. Leah brings him to the bar where she hangs out and helps him replenish his empty urn. He eventually finds his Beijing relatives and learns that his knowledge of his family's history is neither complete nor accurate. While he struggles to deal with this adjustment, he falls for his beautiful, non-blood-related cousin Lin Qing Qing (Chen Shiang-Chyi). But despite their genetic/ethnic closeness, the cultural gap between these two is even greater than that between Leah and Sun Zhan.

Gilfillan weaves the two stories together well enough that we're two thirds into the film before we realize that the disparate plots are never going to come together in any way beyond their general thematic connection. In fact, what she has really constructed is two far-from-gripping romance stories that easily could have been set in Chinatown in any major American city. The sights of Beijing provide some wonderful, heretofore unexploited backdrops for the conflicts, but on balance, Restless is just another low-budget indie whose script never seems to quite justify its production.

Wu, who was born in the States and raised here and in Taiwan, is perfectly believable as a spoiled, devil-may-care surf dude. Still, the act grates after a while, and as his character's one-week stay in Beijing stretches out to months, we begin to wonder about the guy: Does he, like, have a job? Friends? A life back home? Interests beyond the surf reports? As Sun Zhan, Geng Le is a far more charismatic male lead.

As for Kellner, who's definitely got the Sarah Jessica Parker thing going, she is perfectly adequate, but sadly the deficiencies in the script really necessitate something more than "adequate" for her character to hold center screen for an hour and 40 minutes.

 
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