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Cannes 2024: Filmmaker Constance Tsang Makes a Strong Debut with 'Blue Sun Palace'

Wu Ke-xi as Amy, looking up at something off-screen, in Blue Sun Palace
Big Buddha Pictures / Field Trip Media

The number 7 next to "TAC Rating"

Constance Tsang’s directorial debut Blue Sun Palace was one of the most talked-about films in the Critics’ Week section of the Cannes Film Festival, taking home the French Touch Prize of the Jury. A recent graduate of the Columbia University School of the Arts, Tsang has secured the lead participation of Golden Horse Best Actor winner Lee Kang-sheng, best known for his career-long collaborations with slow cinema icon Tsai Ming-liang. Tsang’s film is best summarized as directorial-debut slow cinema, certainly with vision but not without certain flaws. It is nonetheless in many ways a rare, original breakthrough in Asian American cinema.

Set in contemporary New York City, Blue Sun Palace starts with a sweet date between middle-aged couple Cheung (Lee) and Didi (Xu Haipeng). Didi is a masseuse at a parlor with friend Amy (Wu Ke-xi), and she has dreams of opening a Chinese restaurant in Baltimore. But when tragedy strikes, the remaining members of the trio are uncomfortably forced to find strength in each other to rely on, all while trying to survive as immigrants in menial jobs.

The strengths of Blue Sun Palace are immediately obvious in the first scene. Instead of traditional shot-reverse shot coverage, Tsang shoots the date between the lovebirds in a roving handheld-camera long take. This naturalistic style requires so much authenticity from the performances and dialogue, and Tsang certainly shows stylistic confidence abound. The problem arises, however, when she basically repeats this strategy in every scene afterwards. While it is beautiful throughout and works superbly well for certain moments, it feels like an aesthetic strategy for the sake of having a strategy, instead of judiciously curating the film’s cinematic language to what the story needs.

That being said, on a thematic level, there is much to like. Once again, the first scene shows a middle-aged couple in love like teenagers, and that brand of romance is so rare in cinema — especially in Hollywood, it’s almost as if only hot, young people are allowed to be in love. By aging the characters in their 40s and 50s, Tsang has automatically introduced much more subtext to the central relationships in her film: they come into their relationships with histories, regrets, and other baggage. The cast forms untraditional screen couples, especially for Lee, who has never been a conventionally heroic leading man, yet all the more intriguing and inviting by receding into his husk.

Two young Asian women smile as they sit together on a flight of stairs in Blue Sun Palace.
Big Buddha Pictures / Field Trip Media

The other commendable aspect is how Blue Sun Palace operates as an immigrant story. Identifying as a Chinese American, Tsang has presented an Asian American film unlike the kind of AsAm stories that have proliferated the media landscape in the past few years. The main characters of Blue Sun Palace aren’t struggling 30-year-old hipster artists; they aren’t trying to appease their traditional parents; they aren’t even trying to assimilate. To them, America is simply a place to survive from one day to the next; Tsang isn’t even interested in an illusion or the suggestion of an American Dream. At an age when Asian American artists seem to have very limited stories they can tell, she has broken new ground here and shown another convincing reality of Asian Americans so far underseen.

Even though the conditions for our characters can get traumatic, neither is Tsang interested in the Euro-realist suffering porn all too often seen at Cannes by directors like, say, Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers. Tsang simply depicts life as it is: in real time; no exploitation or judgment involved. In terms of style, the filmmaker still has some further refinement to do, but in terms of thematics, she may have latched onto something uniquely hers. Her tone is certainly special, accomplishing the most important thing a directorial debut needs to do: nailing her voice and making your mark on the film scene.


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