A good romantic comedy balances two things: expectations and questions.
We all have expectations of a rom-com. There are the obvious one – the central couple will wind up together in the end – but there are plenty of other familiar elements that recur in this genre: the meet-cute, the not-that-realistic-but-sure-we’ll-go-with-it premise, the wacky best friend, the other (wrong) potential love interests, the makeover, the grand gesture, the declaration of love.
What gives the rom-com energy, though, are the questions. Yes, we know the couple are going to end up together, but how are they going to get there? We know our plucky protagonist will probably extricate herself from the sticky situation she’s in, but how will she do it? We know these other suitors are all wrong for her, when and how is she going to realise?
Five Blind Dates doesn’t quite have the balance of expectations and questions right. It hits all the expectations – indeed, there are so many classic rom-com moments in here you could definitely win rom-com bingo – but sometimes telegraphs the answers to the questions a bit too hard.
This said, the balance is only a little off, not a lot. The end result is a lovely film, one I could see becoming a comfort watch for a lot of people – it’s as warm and familiar as the cups of tea purveyed by its heroine.
In search of a soulmate
Lia (Shuang Hu, also the co-writer) has used her inheritance from her grandmother to open a traditional Chinese tea shop in Sydney, where she employs her best friend Mason (Ilai Swindells). Unfortunately, her business is failing, and she a) has no idea how to save it, and b) is dreading telling her family.
It would normally be easy to avoid her family, because they live in Townsville. However, her sister Alice (Tiffany Wong) is getting married and Lia is the maid of honour, which means a great deal more contact than usual.
The film’s premise is established very quickly when, at one of the pre-wedding events, Lia is told by a fortune teller she will meet her soulmate on one of the next five dates she goes on. And then, when she re-encounters her ex-boyfriend Richard (Yoson An) at Alice’s engagement party, Lia ends up on a mission to go on these five dates as fast as possible so she can bring her soulmate to the wedding – and thus show up Richard, who is the best man.
This beginning section of the film is perhaps its shakiest. It contains quite a lot of exposition very quickly – some of which, if you miss, could make later sections a bit confusing. While Lia and Richard’s re-meet-cute is very sweet, it makes it very clear just which way this is going to go.
The film also doesn’t give us much insight into why Lia and Richard broke up in the first place. While this is revealed slowly over the course of the film, this is very important when it comes to the audience having confidence in a second-chance romance: if it didn’t work out the first time, why would it work out now?
Without this information, we don’t have a great sense of Richard as a person, which makes his characterisation for the first half or so of the film feel a bit thin.
By contrast, though, the first three men Lia meets as part of her dating project are beautifully drawn. Sometimes, in romantic comedies, the premise is sacrificed on the altar of the romance and alternative suitors are one-dimensional, possibly villainous caricatures.
Here, though, Lia’s other options are refreshingly and fascinatingly human. There’s Apollo (Desmond Chiam), the very wealthy businessman her dad (Tzi Ma) has set her up with. There’s Ezra (Jon Prasida), the Chinese language school-teacher her mum (Renee Lim) has set her up with. And then there’s Curtis (Rob Collins), the touchy-feely yoga teacher Alice introduces her to – a character who could easily have become a Byron Bay stereotype but who is given nuance through both writing and performance.
A refreshing film
Mixed in with Lia’s many dates is her anxiety about her failing tea business. The way this problem is resolved is another one of the things the film telegraphs a bit too hard; however, it’s also very funny, which mitigates this somewhat.
While there is nothing particularly surprising in Five Blind Dates, it is nevertheless a really refreshing film. We don’t have a lot of rom-coms set in Australia, much less ones which centre on Chinese Australian characters. It’s a playful, joyful film with a likeable and layered heroine which doesn’t outstay its welcome (it clocks in at under 90 minutes).
If there was to be a follow-up about some of the other characters, you could sign me right up. I, for one, would be fascinated to see what Apollo Wang does next.
Five Blind Dates premieres on Prime Video on 13 February.