If by now you still don't know who Jianqi Huo is, you haven't been paying attention to my reviews. The past few years I've been busy plugging the gaps in his oeuvre and discovered a director with an excellent nose for traditional Chinese romance. In a rare change of pace, Huo travels to Taiwan to helm a more contemporary Japanese production. The result is Snowfall in Taipei [Tai Bei Piao Xue], a vintage Huo with a little twist, but still bearing all the perks I've come to expect from his films.
Huo is someone who loves to incorporate China's traditional cultural customs and values into his films. They are typically set in a somewhat idealized China, which functions as a cosy background to the romantic or filial relationships that take center stage. I don't feel Huo's work is intentionally soft on China's more extreme policies, but it's safe to say that Chinese censors probably prefer his films to those of some of China's more internationally recognized directors.
Snowfall in Taipei feels more like an outlier in Huo's body of work. Not so much thematically, but stylistically. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Yibai Zhang's films, in particular Zhang's short in About Love. That's not a bad thing mind, Zhang is Huo's modern counterpart and one of China's best directors when talking about romantic cinema. It was actually quite nice to see Huo break outside of his usual confines as it allowed him to showcase his broader talents, while still operating within a familiar genre.
The film follows Xiao Mo, an orphan collectively raised by the people in a small village. Xiao Mo grew up a nice young man who spends his day helping out the older people in his neighborhood. His life is turned upside down when one day May, an up and coming singer, arrives in his town. May is running away from the stress and pressure of stardom and the two immediately hit it off together. But they both realize that their relationship is doomed to fail, as May can't stay in the village and Xiao Mo isn't willing to move away.
Despite the change of scenery, visually not so much has changed for Huo. The small village amidst the Taiwan mountains isn't as oldskool or strikingly rural as its Chinese equivalents, but it's still cosy and romantic enough to evoke that typical Huo atmosphere. From time to time the film moves to the big city, but those moments are actually quite sparse and don't take too much away from the film's rustic feel. Colors are striking, the lighting is moody and the camerawork is fine, making for a great-looking film.
The soundtrack is fitting, meaning it makes no effort at all to break from the mould. There are some poppier tracks dispersed throughout the film, mostly relating to May's character, but the larger part of the soundtrack is just mellow string and piano music that feels appropriate, but is also a little boring. I prefer a more daring soundtrack, then again the music never irritates or becomes too sentimental, which at least maintains a nice status quo.
The cast too is adequate. Bo-lin Chen does a fine job. Once hailed as one of Asia's biggest talents, he never quite made it to the top, but he fares well in more commercial films and the part here fits him like a glove. Yao Tong also does a commendable job in her first ever feature film. Her film career never truly took off, but she seems to pick her parts with care. The two of them make a fine couple, the rest of the cast is solid too, but they clearly play second fiddle to the central duo.
Snowfall in Taipei is a pure genre film, so don't go expecting many surprises. The ending might not be 100% fan service, especially when comparing it to Western romance/dramas, but that's actually not too uncommon for an Asian film. More importantly, the execution isn't too melodramatic or cheap, making for a nice romance with likeable characters and just enough depth. If romance isn't your thing this film most likely won't change your mind, but genre fans should find little to dislike here.
While there are clear differences with Huo's earlier films, Snowfall in Taipei still looks and feels like a vintage Jianqi Huo film. Whether that's good or bad depends on how tolerant you are towards romantic movies. The film looks great, the actors do a good job and even though the soundtrack is a little inconspicuous the atmosphere is warm and inviting. It's a pleasant, sweet and endearing film that might not leave an enormous footprint, but should be easy enough to love nonetheless.