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|Cinema Signal: Underwritten and under-directed but well-meaning family story across nations.||MOBILE: variagate.com/cinsigsm.htm?mobi ||
Years ago, Australian convict Dean Randall (Guy Pierce) was asked to sponsor an orphan in China. With nothing else on his calendar inside the walls, he did, and began a pen pal relationship with young and impressionable Mei Mei (Zhu Lin) in which he painted a pretty picture of his lovely life -- his family, the beaches, the weather, everything golden and idyllic. The pictures on the postcards prove it. But, now, she's fourteen.
Number one on her agenda, despite the orphanage's stern choirmaster Miss Chen's (Elain Jin) strict demands as the choir girls travel to the foreign country, is to sneak off and find Randall. As as headstrong as her elder, Mei Mei isn't going to let the chaperone's discipline get in the way of her personal opportunity. She skips choir practice while hunting her pen pal down until she finally meets him. Her convict "dad." And she gets her first lesson in reality.
But her headstrong determination and dreams of a family don't waver and she adapts to the reality she finds. She's totally prepared to accept the man for what he is, her adoration airtight.
Randall, however, isn't so adaptable and this child's sudden appearance is both a shock and a problem. He's got plenty of other worries, like staying alive long enough to be paroled. If he had just not witnessed a crime that the cell block boss committed. Psychopathic killers don't like witnesses and Randall is on the edge of disaster.
Lawyer/social worker Barbara (Claudia Karvan) is there to assist Randall in any way possible and, when she meets Mei-Mei, she does the same for her. But she knows nothing of what's really going on.
This may sound like the story is edgy and dramatic, but the way it's told is idyllicly sweet to the point of getting a sugar rush. It's underwritten and underdirected by Pauline Chan who happily provides a superficial piece of puff with the substance of a confection.
Lin lacks the personality to go with the functions of her role nor with the ability to sell her side of the plot with any meaning or audience connection. And, though the always fine Guy Pearce does his best to develop a halfway sympathetic context for his confused, dismayed, emotionally paralyzed victim, he's an actor struggling to patch what's not in the material.
Unfortunately, these failings severely limit our acceptance of the message about love across racial and cultural borders that Chan was going for.
~~ Jules Brenner