Review: Pali Road (Lim, 2015) – CAAMFest 2016 Preview

paliroad

Pali Road is a psychological thriller set in gorgeous Oahu, starring Taipei-born actress Michelle Chen, Jackson Rathbone (Twilight), and Sung Kang (Fast & Furious franchise). The film, which is director Jonathan Hua Lang Lim‘s second feature, will see its mainland premiere at the San Francisco Bay Area’s CAAMFest in March.

Lily Zhang (Chen), a transplant from China, is completing her medical residency in Hawaii when she meets Neil Lang (Rathbone), a local third-grade teacher. Neil is immediately taken with the young doctor and wins her with his goofy charm. Despite objections from Lily’s parents and romantic advances from her sleazy boss Mitch (Kang), the new couple is happily in love.

That is, until Neil proposes one evening. The question terrifies Lily, who decides to answer her cell phone instead of her boyfriend. On their way home, the two fight over their different conceptions of marriage. Neil suggests that maybe it would have been better if they’d never met, and Lily, sarcastically, agrees. Then, distracted by his emotion, Neil accidentally crashes the car.

Lily wakes up into what would be a dream come true for many but what for her is a nightmare: living in a mansion, she is supposed to be Mitch’s wife, mother to their son, and a successful doctor. The problem is that, in a collision of two possible fates, she has landed in the one in which Neil, the love of her life, has never existed.

According to Mitch’s psychiatrist friend Tim (Henry Ian Cusick), Lily’s strange behavior can be explained by “delayed amnesia.” A recent head injury is causing her brain to fabricate new memories in order to fill the gaps caused by the damage. Far from buying her any sympathy, however, this theory leads Tim to suggest psychotropic drugs and, later, committal to an institution.

Meanwhile, everyone, including her best friend Amy (Lauren Sweetser), berates Lily for rejecting her perfect life in pursuit of a mad fantasy. But to Lily this reality is the mad fantasy. Refusing to accept her situation, she goes on a hunt for the “truth,” and the audience comes along for the ride. We see what Lily sees, which is a circus world of illusions and fun house mirrors with meaningful objects turning up in strange locations and then disappearing in thin air. Faced with the evidence, we have to accept her psychosis, and yet…

Chen delivers a convincing performance as a sweet, happy lover, a self-possessed professional, and a frightened, defiant victim of her own crumbling reality. Kang is also surprisingly believable, not just as the cocky asshole he usually plays, but also as tormented husband. A couple of exchanges between the two even set some fat tears rolling down my cheeks.

Proficient acting does much to dress up (or at least brush over) the film’s cheesier scenes, of which there are probably too many. The movie leans heavily on clichés and stereotypes–strict Asian parents, unsavory bosses, ideal loves–and much of the dialogue is painfully theatrical. In the end, the “truth” that the film delivers is a loose lesson about over-planning your life and not following your heart–a tired, uncomplicated American message aimed at the tiger parents of the world and their beholden children.

But as a thriller meant to entertain us rather than to make us think, Pali Road succeeds. Though the plot seems a mishmash of other familiar plots, I still found myself on edge, wanting to know what would happen next. Of course, the ending isn’t altogether surprising, fulfilling one of only a handful of probable scenarios. But, augmented by a few moments of unanticipated poignancy, it nonetheless holds up decently.

If nothing else, Pali Road marks Chen as an actress to watch. Sometimes it takes a good role to reveal an actor’s skills. Sometimes it takes a middling one to show how she can rise above.

Bay Area residents can catch the CAAMFest screening of Pali Road on Saturday, March 12, at San Francisco’s Alamo Brewhouse.

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