Dir: Silvia Chang. Taiwan-Hong Kong. 2004. 109mins.
A cinematic weave of contemporary Asian women's stories, 20:30:40 is also a star vehicle for its three female protagonists. Sylvia Chang (who also directed and co-wrote), Rene Liu and Lee Sinje, each half a generation apart, have a cross-border appeal that stretches from Taiwan via Hong Kong to Malaysia, both as actresses and as pop singers. Add male stars Leung, Wong and Ren and a peppy but original girlpower storyline, and it's not difficult to predict a rosy roll-out for this Berlinale competition contender in south-east and east Asian territories, particularly Taiwan and Hong Kong. Elsewhere, this three-story exercise may be a little too lightweight and too locally-flavoured to work outside of specialist Far Eastern distribution and exhibition circles.
Set in Taipei, the film follows the lives and crises of three women whose paths cross only tangentially in the course of the action. Lily Zhao (Chang) is a forty-year-old florist who discovers (while delivering a bouquet) that her husband is not just having an affair - he has even bought and furnished a whole apartment for his lover. After the inevitable divorce, Lily decides to kick back by dating a series of younger men. Chang is good at slapstick, less good at hitting the more serious notes: a couple of her best scenes are long gags in the purest silent comedy tradition.
Xiang Xiang (Liu), a 30-year-old air hostess, has a man in every town and at least two at home in Taipei, one married and therefore desirable, the other single and therefore better kept at arm's length. The most interesting of the three heroines, Xiang is impulsive, prey to wild mood swings, surrounded by men but ultimately rather lonely: used to being pursued, she's at a loss when the chase cools off (something brought home in a lovely scene when she rings her own doorbell to check that it's still working).
Xiao Je (Lee Sinje), the youngest of the three women, has just arrived in Taipei from a small village in Malaysia, chasing the dragon of pop stardom. A washed-out hippy music producer teams her up with a local girl, Yi Tong, with the idea of launching them as a singing twin duo (though they don't resemble each other in the least). They share a flat, giggle a lot, and begin to develop feelings for each other that go beyond girlish friendship. Though some will find the bubbliness of these scenes grating, there is an infectious, hormonal hilarity in them that catches the mood of this transitional age, when parental authority has been shaken off but before responsibility pitches in to spoil the fun.
A link between the three stories is provided by the mini-earthquakes that rock all three women at some point in the story and which stand as rather obvious symbols of the emotional upheavals they are going through. 20:30.40 is good on the sensory overload of contemporary Taipei - especially the sound barrage, with drumming rain, mobile phone trills, supermarket muzak, traffic noise and other bleeps and roars coming across in hyper-real enhanced stereo.
It's just a shame that the whole thing turns out to be so disappointingly insubstantial in the end, like monosodium glutamate masquerading as nouvelle cuisine. Still, the central "thirty" thread of the storyline - marked by a fine performance by Double Vision star Rene Liu - makes this women's film worth the ride for anyone interested in the lighter end of contemporary Taiwanese cinema.
Prod co: Tang Moon International Productions Co
Co-prod: Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia
International dist: Columbia Pictures Film Distribution Asia
Producers: Hsu Li Kong, Patricia Cheng
Screenplay: Sylvia Chang, GC Goo Bi, Cat Kwan
Cinematography: Chien Hsiang
Production design: Man Lim Chung
Editor: Liao Ching Sung
Music: Kay Huang
Main cast: Sylvia Chang, Rene Liu, Lee Sinje, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Richie Ren, Kate Yeung