Personas – university can be all about figuring them out but more often than not the key comes from an unexpected direction. An unexpected direction is where Dude’s Manual (脫單告急, Tuōdān Gàojí) eventually takes us after kicking off with a scary crime thriller opening in which our hero gets himself temporally mixed up with a serial killer investigation only to earn himself the embarrassing nickname “Air Pump” when his “victim” is revealed to be a blow up doll. An unlikely meet cute brings him into the orbit of the most popular girl at school and subsequently into her plan to win back her reputation after getting it tarnished with his naffness at the expense of another shy and lonely student, but then again, isn’t everyone going to get what they wanted? Perhaps yes, perhaps, no.
He Xiaoyang (Dong Zijian) is in the last year of uni and is still single, never having had a girlfriend. An embarrassing incident with a blowup doll has earned him the nickname “Air Pump” around campus, while his roommates – “sexpert” Boshi (Yuan Fufu), and rich kid Ren Yi (Jin Jin), are doing a little better when it comes to the ladies, but neither of them is much help to the nerdy Xiaoyang whose main passion is the homemade flying machine he’s crafting in preparation for a competition. At an exclusive party Ren Yi gets the boys into, Xiaoyang’s life takes a dramatic shift when popular pretty girl Guan Xin (Elaine Zhong) throws up on his T-shirt and then becomes trapped with him in a bathroom from which they fail to escape before a budding paparazzo snaps them together in a compromising position. Guan Xin, mortified that anyone might think she hooked up with “Air Pump”, hatches a plan to get Xiaoyang a “real” girlfriend to clear her name and retrieve her top girl status.
As rom-com plots go it’s a fairly old fashioned one. Guan Xin decides to set Xiaoyang up with a shy concert pianist, Li Shushu (Jessie Li), who hardly ever comes to parties because of her intense social anxiety. She is therefore, Guan Xin rationalises, perhaps grateful for the interest and Guan Xin is really “helping” two people by manipulating them both into a possible relationship which might just have legs. Of course, while she’s doing that she and Xiaoyang can’t help but grow closer even if Guan Xin can’t quite bring herself to admit it.
The spanner in the works is that Xiaoyang, despite himself, is a pretty nice guy. He plays along with Guan Xin’s scheme but quickly goes off book, demonstrating genuine understanding and connection with the shy Shushu as he gently helps to bring her out of her shell. He is, however, also falling for Guan Xin but doubting that she will ever set aside her haughty attitude and accept her growing feelings for him.
The central irony is that Guan Xin can’t see all the ways in which she and Xiaoyang have already progressed through the standard rom-com gateways to love. Meanwhile, Xiaoyang’s friends are also enjoying a lesson in romance with both of their respective girlfriends as sex obsessed Boshi has to learn to be less superficial, and Ren Yi that money really doesn’t buy everything. It is hard to get past the unethical using of poor Shushu who becomes a sacrificial pawn in Guan Xin’s grand plan, but then again perhaps she learns a thing or two herself even if it’s just how to subvert someone else’s nefarious plan in order to engineer a happier out come for all.
Ko has a few laughs at the expense of the young men and women of modern China. Lives lived online have contributed to an already shame hungry culture and given birth to a fair few unscrupulous paparazzo gossip hounds who might be better sticking their cameras in more useful places, while also reinforcing traditional ideas about social hierarchy. Guan Xin, in many ways taking on the masculine Svengali role as she “fixes” the feminised ugly duckling of Xiaoyang, has some pretty cynical ideas about modern dating – using jealously as a weapon, trying to turn the “nice” Xiaoyang into a hot bad boy player that all the women will go crazy for, but then her plans do seem to work and Xiaoyang sees himself rising through the loser ranks to become an eligible campus catch. Like all good rom-coms, however, he doesn’t let himself be changed on the inside so much as rediscover what it is that makes him him, flying off into the sky on the wings of a romantic dream crafted with his own hands.
Dude’s Manual screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival on 14th July at 2.45pm.
Original trailer (English subtitles)