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Chinese Puzzle is the third part in a series of ensemble relationship dramedies about the close-knit relationships between an eclectic group of characters from all over Europe. Their steamy adventures began with L'Auberge Espagnole, a hit in Europe in 2002, where they hooked up while living together in a small apartment in Barcelona. 2005's Russian Dolls picked up the stories of the same characters three years later as their relationships became more complex.
Eight years after Russian Dolls comes Chinese Puzzle, which takes the setting to New York as Xavier (Romain Duris), Martine (Audrey Tatou), Isabelle (Cecile De France) and Wendy (Kelly Reilly) cope with the oncoming mid-life crises as they approach their 40s. The main problem with Chinese Puzzle is that if you're not aware that it's supposed to be the third episode of what's currently a trilogy, it's highly possible that you'll be lost in the story.
I haven't seen the previous two films and was surprised by the lack of sufficient character development during the first act. Either this represented really bad writing on the part of writer-director Cedric Klapisch, or we were meant to be already familiar with these characters.
As the film kept running, my wife was curious about the fact that this film supported the same cast as L'Auberge Espagnole, a cute little European feature she saw over ten years ago. Eventually, a little bit of research showed that Chinese Puzzle was actually part of a character-wise more expansive yet story-wise less interesting version Richard Linklater's Before Trilogy.
In Chinese Puzzle, Xavier and Wendy, who apparently got married and had kids in Russian Dolls, break up as Wendy decides to move to New York. In order to not lose contact with his children, Xavier decides to also move to The Big Apple, where her lesbian friend Isabelle also happens to live. Over time, he rekindles her relationship with Martine, who occasionally visits him from Paris.
It's beyond a doubt that if you're already a fan of these characters, you'll be invested a lot more in Chinese Puzzle than I was. As a standalone film, it's a typical French romance full of intersecting storylines about the main characters becoming emotionally and sexually involved with each other, with a dash of comedy of errors and some slapstick thrown in.
The characters and performances have a bare minimum amount of depth to carry the film, but writer/director Klapisch loses focus as he haphazardly jumps from one sub-plot to another without much of a structural glue to keep the overall narrative together. Instead of connecting the many conflicts the ensemble faces, he chooses to deal with one conflict at a time, resulting in an episodic feel. Some of the abrasive choices, like the overtly-stylistic NYC montages set to the obnoxious funk score feel desperate, as if Klapisch didn't have enough faith in his material and decided to jazz up the piece in any way he could.
From the clips I saw from the previous films, I can safely say that Chinese Puzzle represent a clear visual improvement for the series. It looks like the first two films were shot using digital cameras at a time when such technology could not bring the same depth and resolution as the cameras of today. Chinese Puzzle's 1080p transfer brings the film's gorgeous digital cinematography to vibrant life. Even though it's a French production, it fully captures NYC's glory.
For some reason, two 5.1 tracks are offered, a lossy Dolby Digital track as well as a DTS-HD one. Usually, a 2.0 stereo track is offered for viewers to enjoy the film through their TV speakers, but why include a surround track that's almost ten times weaker than the lossless one? Anyway, the DTS-HD 5.1 track I listened the movie with was more than adequate to enjoy a romance, which focuses more on clear dialogue than anything else. The one big problem is that the already annoying score is mixed too loudly and result in a lot of volume adjustment during the viewing experience.
Interviews: A way too roughly presented set of interviews with the cast and director. It clocks in at around 25 minutes and is a rough experience to sit through, especially since the cast repeat the same answers over and over again.
Making-of: A very comprehensive 52-minute documentary that not only focuses on Chinese Puzzle's production, but on how far the characters have come over the years. It uses a lot of footage from the previous two films and could be beneficial to viewers who didn't have a chance to check out the first two installments.
We also get a Trailer.
Chinese Puzzle is an unfocused yet sufficiently entertaining ensemble romance. If you're a fan of the series, you'll no doubt be more invested in these characters than I was and therefore might enjoy it more than I did.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com