The conventional rom-com plot of a handsome billionaire falling in love with a goofy nerd girl is at the heart of “This Is Not What I Expected,” an absolutely charming and delightful import from China. The charismatic film is in Mandarin but has such a slam-dunk formula that if Hollywood would take notice and remake it with popular American movie stars, I think it would be a huge hit.
Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a handsomely polished real estate mogul who is in the habit of buying up hotel properties to add to his portfolio. When he visits the small and ineptly run property the Rosebud, the kitchen’s kooky sous chef Gu Shengnan (Dongyu Zhou) serves him the most perfect meal of his life. The two couldn’t be on more opposite ends of the spectrum: he is uptight and orderly, she is a wildly free spirit — but they are brought together by a love for food.
It’s a clichéd romantic story for sure, but it is one that is incredibly well done (ha!) here. There are plenty of laughs (seriously, I was laughing heartily through most of this movie), and there are many slapstick gags and awkward moments when the two keep running into each other. It’s too bad that love story is not credible in the slightest, as the two are just not believable as a couple. The obligatory fantasy romance aspects feel very forced, although the actors are quite appealing and give it their all.
Thankfully the wacky performances fit the material, meaning the leads play their characters with highly exaggerated, flamboyant quirks. Sometimes the quirkiness is so over the top that it becomes irritating and annoying, but these are still likeable people –they just don’t belong together. Forget romance: luckily the film relies on the international language of food.
And that’s the glue that holds this delightful charmer together: food Don’t go to the theater hungry because you’ll be salivating at the delectable plates of foodstuffs and dazzling artistry of the cooking photography. The food becomes its own character in the film, from a sizzling skillet to a gorgeous montage of creative, beautiful egg dishes. There are many pageants of pretty people noshing, including a scene that lays out the most precise ramen cooking directions ever.
Director Derek Hui throws in many fun bits that make the mundane come alive, like a mini musical number complete with waiters dancing and twirling their silver trays to a whimsical hallucinatory aftermath induced by a dinner of toxic blowfish (which includes their meal leaping off the plate while shouting “stupid humans!” and an indoor rainstorm that’s controlled by vocal commands).
Since this film is a product of the Chinese studio system, prepare yourself for some truly strange elements that detract from the overall story. There are lots of really, really bizarre American knockoff pop songs set to repetitive musical montages that dominate the film’s second half, and the choice to use oddball sound effects (including record scratches, spring “boings” and kazoo buzzes) feels out of place and unnecessary. This film is funny on its own without resorting to needless cartoonish ingredients.
“This Is Not What I Expected” is a real charmer and an amusing little film. It’s the perfect foodie meet-cute.