The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #13 January / February 2015
At the Cinema
Chinese Puzzle
by Erik Zidowecki
January / February 2015 | 

The film Chinese Puzzle is the third film in a romance comedy trilogy. The first was L'auberge Espagnole, which is one of my favourite films [reviewed in Parrot Time #1], in which we meet our main character, a Frenchmen named Xavier, and follow his life for a year as he studies in Barcelona. The second film, Russian Dolls, sees Xavier a few years later, meeting up with some of his old friends and finding romance with Wendy, an English women he met in the first film.

This third film finds Xavier and Wendy, married and living in France with two kids, at the end of their marriage. They have "fallen out of love", as Xavier narrates. Wendy has announced that she has met someone in New York, and moves there to be with her new man, taking their kids with them.

This third film finds Xavier and Wendy, married and living in France with two kids, at the end of their marriage.

This devastates Xavier's world. While he accepts the marriage is over, he doesn't want to lose contact with his kids, so he moves to New York as well. There, he moves in with his Belgian lesbian friend, Isabelle, who is now living in New York, and her partner, Chinese woman Ju.

Xavier finds several obstacles he must overcome in order to keep seeing his kids. Just to get visitation rights, he needs to hire a lawyer, which is expensive. Without a work permit, he must find a job that pays "under the table". With just a visa, he cannot remain in New York for more than a few months.

He takes care of the job issue by becoming a bicycle courier, a position introduced to him by black New York native and divorced father, Ray. He gets around the immigrant status by marrying a Chinese naturalized citizen, Nancy.

While all this occurs, he is also reunited with his childhood sweetheart from France, Martine, who is also single now, raising two kids, and happens to be doing some business in New York.

Xavier getting married to Nancy to stay in the US. In front are his kids.

Like the previous films, there isn't a plot or storyline so much as view of scenes over the course of a time period, showing how life is for these characters.

From a language point of view, this film offers a few things. First is the number of languages being used in the film, as in the previous two. Xavier narrates in French, but there is interaction with various characters in French, English, Chinese, and even Spanish and Yiddish.

Two scenes also are wonderful bits of language fun. First is during a business meeting between Martine and the directors of a tea company with which she does business. Xavier is there with her, for moral support, but is completely stunned when Martine starts speaking fluent Chinese. She asks them to stop using pesticides to grow their tea, mainly because organically grown products are more in demand.

After she speaks, the head man replies to her, in Chinese, that the Chinese people have been growing tea for 4000 years, and that she, a foreigner, has no right to tell them how to grow their tea. If they don't use pesticides, they will get fewer crops.

Xavier and Martine at a business meeting with a tea company in New York.

Martine is stunned by the response and rebuke and pauses briefly. Then she begins speaking again, but this time, her Chinese has a very different, drawn out, tone, while her expression is almost comical.

She is reciting a famous Chinese poem, "Climbing Stork Tower", which is recited in a lyrical way. The poem is about putting in an effort to achieve a greater goal, and so she is telling the company that they must change their ways to get better sales. The room is stunned not only by her ability with Chinese, but also by her understanding of both Chinese culture and literature.

The other scene occurs when Xavier is applying for the job as courier. A Spanish guy, Miguel, is very upset that they are hiring him, protesting that he is a foreigner.

Jefe, the Mexican boss, gets angry at this and bursts out, "I'm a foreigner. You're a foreigner.". He gestures to the Chinese man in the room behind him, "He's a foreigner.". Then he addresses the room, "Who in here isn't a foreigner?".

Xavier sitting with his three women: Isabelle, Wendy, and Martine.

Ray chimes up with "Whoa, whoa. I'm not a foreigner. I'm an American."

Miguel isn't satisfied, and swears about Xavier in Spanish. Xavier responds by swearing back in Spanish. Stunned, Miguel asks if he can speak Spanish. After that, there is no more problem. When someone speaks your language, they are no longer a foreigner.

To be honest, I was disappointed by this film. I don't think it had to do with the film itself, but rather with two of the main characters. I found their actions so wrong that I became angry.

First is Wendy. In the first film, she was the sweet English girl who was trying to help everyone get along as well as keep their shared flat clean. However, she was also cheating on her English boyfriend with an American tourist, an action the entire group of roommates help her cover up in one of the funniest scenes of the film. In Russian Dolls, she is having problems with an abusive boyfriend, so her character is more sympathetic. In Chinese Puzzle, however, she is completely selfish, arrogant and just plain nasty. She is the one that has thrown away their marriage, dragged them all to New York and essentially destroyed Xavier's life, yet she acts to him and her new boyfriend, John, like she is some kind of victim, even getting upset with John when he tries to point out Xavier's side. John actually treats Xavier far better than Wendy.

Martine and Xavier looking out over New York with their four kids.

The second problem is Isabelle. Now Isabelle is pregnant, after getting Xavier to donate sperm, because she and Ju want to have a baby. Ju is very considerate, not complaining when Xavier lives with them for a while. She also aids Xavier by giving him her old flat and she also helps him and Nancy fool the immigration official during a random check to see if they are truly married. Yet Isabelle cheats on Ju by having a sexual affair with the babysitter they hire. There isn't a problem between Isabelle and Ju; Isabelle is just that kind of person.

Even the peripheral characters - Ju, Nancy, Ray, and John - are better people than the two people who have got so much out of Xavier and claim to be his friends. I can't help wondering if that might have been one of the underlying themes of the film: that strangers can be better than people we have known for years.

Actually, of the three long-time female friends of Xavier, Martine turns out to be the best. This is odd, considering that in the previous films, she was such an immature, whining, selfish woman (greatly reminding me of my Italian ex-girlfriend). Now, she is a successful business woman, raising two children alone. She also helps Xavier a lot with dealing with things while she is in New York. I hated her in the previous film, but in this one, she is the one that shines.

Many people claim this film is the finest of the three, and you don't need to have seen the previous ones to enjoy this one. If you could only watch one of the three, though, I would still suggest L'auberge Espagnole.

At The Cinema - Chinese Puzzle
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
• "Chinese Puzzle" Internet Movie Database <>
All images are copyright Opposite Field Pictures, Belgacom, Ce Qui Me Meut Motion Pictures (as Ce Qui Me Meut), La Compagnie Cinématographique, Panache Productions

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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