Blue Sun Palace (2024)


Blue Sun Palace Review

Chinese American writer director Constance Tsang’s debut feature “Blue Sun Palace” has won the French Touch prize from the Cannes Critics’ Week jury. This intimate Mandarin language drama is also likely to pick up more festival play, and indeed marks out Tsang as a talent to watch. It stars Ke-Xi Wu (“Nina Wu”), Lee Kang Sheng (Tsai Ming Liang’s regular leading man) and Haixpeng Xu (“Where Echoes Never End”) as three working class Chinese immigrants in Flushing, NY performances that alone could attract distributors in coming months.

While Queens is possibly the most diverse place on earth, the setting of “Blue Sun Palace” is nearly entirely Chinese; specifically it takes place in New York’s biggest Chinatown. Taiwanese Amy (Ke-Xi Wu) and mainland Didi (Haixpeng Xu) work at an establishment offering massages, along with two other women. The masseuses receive bigger tips if they provide what the trade calls a “happy ending” despite a sign on the door stipulating “No Sexual Services.” It’s not the best job in the world, but all four women share a small living and working space, so good camaraderie is essential. Didi and Amy are particularly close: they’re saving money together to open a restaurant in Baltimore where Didi’s young daughter lives with her aunt.

Outside of work hours, vibrant, upbeat Didi spends time with Cheung (Lee Kang Sheng), a lonely middle-aged Taiwanese man who does construction for a living like many others he sends money home to his sick mother, wife and daughter. We first see them enjoying themselves at a restaurant during one of Tsang’s intimately shot opening scenes; later they sing karaoke at a club.

Tsang’s minimalist screenplay moves between two periods of time separated by a traumatic event on Lunar New Year although it takes 33 minutes for the opening credits to appear. After that rupture, the relationship between the characters shifts and a theme of finding comfort in grief takes hold.

“Palace” is closer in mood to European art cinema than American indie fare. Plot-wise, Tsang who allows her seasoned actors plenty of room to breathe life into their sad sack lives within a milieu where dreams are more likely to be deferred than realized (but are still necessary) is much more interested in atmospherics. It does seem strange, though, that she provides Cheung with a backstory explaining why he’s a migrant stuck in such a dead-end job, but gives Amy and Didi nothing of the sort.

The film’s longest scene after its final image has already faded from sight is likely to be one featuring Caucasian client whose treatment by Amy feels creepily invasive. Claustrophobically shot by Canadian DP Norm Li (“Casino Jack,” “Pompeii”), it vividly characterizes the downsides of what Amy does for a living; indeed, his tender yet tightly-framed cinematography on Kodak film makes palpable both the confined nature of many of these characters’ existences and their cramped surroundings – all captured with the eye of an observant documentarian. Sami Jano supplies an effective but sparingly used score.

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