For those curious about what it’s like to watch a Chinese-language remake of “What Women Want,” it’s mostly like watching the 2000 Nancy Meyers film “What Women Want.” In Chinese. Just different enough, it has neither the obsessional pull of Gus Van Sant’s loony remake of “Psycho” nor enough distinction to really feel like its own unique object.
The essentials are the same, the story of a male ad exec who gains the temporary ability to hear women’s thoughts and gain insight into both himself and his gendered other, but director and screenwriter Daming Chen never finds a way to make his redo feel specific, special or necessary -- at least for an American moviegoer. Chen has added a larger element of magic by way of vague explanation, as there’s a school of flying fish connected to the leading man’s unusual gift. And by way of explaining his chauvinistic tendencies, there’s a once-insensitive father figure instead of a Vegas showgirl mother.Andy Lau, taking over the role originally played by Mel Gibson, is too much of a subtle charmer straight away, so the new film never successfully establishes him as enough of a caddish roué. Lau is a genuine pop star in Asia, and his moments of singing and dancing don’t have quite the same private, clumsy awkwardness as Gibson’s similar beats, making Lau look like a character already pretty well in touch with his suave, sensitive side even before he falls into a bathtub while wearing pantyhose.
Gong Li -- who may be most familiar to American audiences for her speedboat-and-shower romps with Colin Farrell in “Miami Vice” -- first appears with glasses, a messy, tangled up-do and her face in a book. Considering she often is named on lists of the world’s most glamorous women, this makes the romantic comedy convention of nerdifying a woman only to have her emerge later as a drop-dead beauty all the more transparent. There is simply no downshifting Gong Li.
On the DVD commentary for the original film, Meyers declared both her movie and its main character distinctly American -- and with the film’s evocation of Frank Sinatra-style manliness, celebration of Chicago architecture and belief in personal reinvention, it is understandable to see what she meant.
In remaking the film, Chen hasn’t much tried to mine for analogous Chinese cultural specifics, rather going for the blandly universal. The offices are generic, the secondary characters undefined, and so the new film is often reduced to notions along the broad-stroke lines of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” With two gorgeous, compulsively watchable stars doing their best to rise above middling material that often proves more a hindrance than support, Chen has perhaps inadvertently created a faithful Hollywood remake after all.