The second highest grossing film of all time in mainland China (after Titanic), Feng Xiaogang's Be There Or Be Square is something of a dubious milestone, a slight and unabashedly populist romantic comedy that opens up a rich national cinema to cheap Hollywood luster. Closer in spirit to the offbeat commercial strain of Hong Kong than the political seriousness associated with Xhang Yimou (Raise The Red Lantern) or Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Feng's shallow froth does have its charms. Most are derived from Be There's amusingly distorted portrait of Los Angeles, which is just authentic enough to reveal what America looks like when magnified through a foreign lens. Ge You and Xu Fan play mismatched Beijingers struggling to stake their claim in a landscape of trailer parks and BMWs, fraught with casual violence and populated by hicks, yokels, and giggling sadists. A part-time insurance agent and production manager for Chinese films, Ge meets Xu while shooting in a mansion she's housesitting while the owners are away. Despite the damage inflicted by a bungling crew, the two become reluctant friends, but after she's subjected to a terrifying home invasion, he convinces her to get on a plane back to Beijing. But coincidence and fate keep forcing the pair together until they can no longer resist each other. Be There Or Be Square may be formulaic, but Feng's capacity for shamelessness becomes more endearing with each cheerfully outrageous turn. No melodramatic flourish is too much for a director who puts his heroes through a SWAT-team assault, sudden blindness, a gauzy flash-forward at a retirement home, and about six different endings. Feng's tacked-on message that the American dream is just a colorful, hollow distraction from what's really important may earn him state approval, but Be There Or Be Square casts plenty of doubts on his conviction.
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John Hughes says the director called his Ferris Bueller performance "boring"