Back in the days when Mel Gibson had much more than a prayer for an acting career (circa 2000), he smartly with director Nancy Meyers in WHAT WOMEN WANT, the story of a sexist advertising executive who learns his lesson when he unwittingly develops the power to read only women’s minds. The $70 million picture went on to gross almost $400 million worldwide, so it was perhaps inevitable that someone somewhere decided to cash in on the successful, romantic formula of a man earning a woman’s heart by understanding her innermost thoughts and desires …
… but who’d’thunk it would’ve been China?
Flash forward almost a dozen years, and you have WHAT WOMEN WANT (aka I KNOW A WOMAN’S HEART) starring international superstars Andy Lau (perhaps best known outside China for INFERNAL AFFAIRS, the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED) and Gong Li (best known for her incomparable beauty and a long tenure in art-house films). Granted, the overt romance – kissing and cuddling – has been strongly toned down by the Chinese, but the major points of the story remain intact. Lau stars as Sun Zi Gang, a sexist ad executive who believes he’s destined for ‘corner office glory’ whose life is turned upside down when CEO Dong (played by Chengru Li) instead decides that what the agency needs most is “what women want,” and that’s best decided by Li Yi-Long (the aforementioned Gong Li).
Before China embraced the film, only in Hollywood could the recipe for suicide (a hair dryer dropped into a bathtub full of water) serve as the inspiration for a romantic comedy. To China’s credit, they’ve lost the hair dryer in favor of an artistic fish lamp, but the overall effect is the same: electrocution is the catalyst for Sun Zi Gang’s newfound mind-reading ability. Suddenly, Sun can read every woman’s mind, and the usual hilarity ensues. Much of the ‘laugh points’ remain intact from the American original – Sun struggles to find his ‘inner woman’; Sun’s administrative assistant is curiously without a brain for her boss to read; Sun’s daughter prompts him to begin to understand just what it is that women want – and that’s a tremendous benefit. Humor is a universal language, and sometimes cultural differences stand in the way of a good, solid laugh, but Lau – no slouch as a charismatic lead – certainly milks every cinema moment for what it’s worth. Playing opposite one of China’s premiere actresses is certainly an inspiration, but, if it weren’t for these two worthy leads, I might not have even felt the inspiration to see the Chinese interpretation much less finish it.
As can happen with the passage of time, romantic comedies lose their edge. They’re forgotten when the next quality rom-com comes along, and, sadly, 2000’s WHAT WOMEN WANT doesn’t look, smell, and feel all that different from 2011’s Chinese facsimile. Sure, there are some thematic tweaks – the Chinese wisely chose to play up the more mystical aspect of how such a romance was possible to begin with – but, overall, it isn’t all that dissimilar. There’s an added ‘father figure’ component for Lau. His daughter isn’t played off as a bit of a fringe outsider amongst her peers. Lau doesn’t really have an intellectual equal or a challenge in his workplace, so it’s hard to accept that Dong’s reasoning to go outside the agency for a new executive director. Still, these are chump changes, nothing of real creative substance, so I didn’t feel that they contributed greatly to an enhanced story. Honestly, the greatest strength of the Chinese version is the casting of Lau and Li because I can’t imagine the film even remotely succeeding without these two stars, so, on that front, at least, the producers chose wisely.
But as for the source material?
The original WHAT WOMEN WANT had elements of broader farce that, thankfully, appear to have been hacked off in this retread. Gibson likely had a greater international presence, so there was little risk in amping up the physical comedy. Lau underplays everything here. He dresses up in women’s clothes and accessories in trying to awaken his ‘anima,’ but there are more than a few missed laughs. Again, maybe that’s a cultural difference that the directors and producers didn’t want to exploit. It’s hard for me to know because I’m not as up on Chinese culture as the next critic. All I can say is that this variation on WHAT WOMEN WANT had much less ‘com’ than ‘rom’ for a ‘rom-com’ and perhaps the American version is the better of the two on that assessment alone. As I said, it’s otherwise difficult to tell these two films apart.
It’s a solid effort, but nothing exceptional. Lau and Li’s fans should be thrilled. Recommended.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to share that the people at New Video provided me with a DVD screener copy for the purposes of completing this review.