‘Blue Sun Palace’ Review: Critics Week Award Winner Tells Story Of Grief And Rebirth In New York Chinese Community – Cannes Film Festival

Blue Sun Palace was one of the prize winners at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, where it took the French Touch Award for the Critics’ Week selections (Simon of the Mountain took the Grand Prize, the other major award from the section). “French Touch” is an apt name for an award to a film where “touch” is key in several scenes depicted in the massage parlor setting where much of the movie takes place.

The feature debut of Chinese American writer-director Constance Tsang focuses on three main characters. All are immigrants to New York, specifically Flushing in Queens. where Didi (Haipeng Xu) and Amy (Ke-xi Wu) operate the Blue Sun Palace, a massage parlor/nail shop where the front door clearly notes “No Sexual Services” at this establishment. Filmed almost entirely in the Mandarin language, we see the everyday moments of their work life as well as personal, including Didi’s affair with a married man, Cheung (Lee Kang Sheng), who is working a dull construction job to make enough money to send back home to his ill mother, wife and kid in Taiwan while his American dream is not-all-that. In the two-hour film’s first half-hour, we see them eating together (meals are a frequent focus of Tsang’s scenario), going to karaoke and sleeping together, all while making idle chitchat, which Didi frequently does with Amy as well, urging her to get a boyfriend while also quietly defending her decision to casually be with Cheung despite his domestic situation. It is just the stuff of life, her life.

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Customers come in and out for massages or pedicures, prices are negotiated out of necessity as these immigrants are just trying to make their way in a country and city that have come to but don’t quite understand, even as it sits in their own community. The Chinese New Year is being celebrated and the store closes for it when an unexpected event changes everything. This is all announced by Tsang’s choice to run opening credits 34 minutes into the movie, no doubt wanting to divide the mundanity of the first part before diving into a darker second part. This same technique was done in the Oscar-winning 2021 Japanese film Drive My Car, which announced its opening credits 41 minutes into a three-hour film and also was used as a story-break device like it is in Blue Sun Palace.

Post-opening credits, time clearly has passed, Amy is in a deep depression, and the store has moved to a new location. Didi no longer is part of the focus, but her absence is. Amy now is dealing with her own problems and questions about life in America and basically how to go on without her friend and partner’s presence. Cheung now slowly comes into her life, there are more meals, talk about Didi in the past and a new sexual relationship with Cheung and Amy emerging.

Tsang is not interested in conventional plotlines here but more of mood and atmosphere. You can almost smell the inside of this workplace. The director is clearly a minimalist, a devotee of what is known now as “slow cinema,” (the name given to an arthouse subgenre) in which little appears to happen, the camera lingers without moving for several minutes at a time and there is virtually no music score to help tell the audience what to feel (Sami Jano is credited as composer, but it is so sparse until the very end that he really had little to do).

With her face as she does a massage on an American customer, Amy perhaps tells us more than with any dialogue. Cinematographer Norm Li’s camera also is tight on her hands as she works the heavy-set guy’s back in sensual, but not sexual, fashion. When she flips him over, he begs for a “happy ending,” as relief is often called in parlor parlance, even offering $100 more. Despite the rules she had set, she reluctantly complies to his desperation. The happy ending does not end happily, though, another lesson learned in a strange country whose people are somewhat alien to her.

Tsang, who based her story partially on her own immigrant past with her parents in Queens, certainly can use this very small, very minimalist offering as a calling card to more ambitious projects. Her emphasis — simple, direct, touching (sorry) — is impressively understated and humanistic. This is ultimately about longing, loneliness, grief and finding a place in a challenging environment. It is indeed also about the need to feel, yes touch, but not in obvious ways we might expect.

Producers are Sally Sujin Oh, Eli Raskin and Tony Yang. Blue Sun Palace is looking for distribution.

Title: Blue Sun Palace
Festival: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Director-screenwriter: Constance Tsang
Cast: Ke-xi Wu, Lee Kang Sheng, Haipeng Xu
Sales agent: WME
Running time: 1 hr 56 min

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