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Movie Review: New World (2011) by Lim Kah Wai

A heart-warming and entertaining work

Malaysia-born drector Lim Kah Wai's “” reflects its creator's nomadic life, split between studying and living in Osaka, Beijing and Tokyo. The film is in fact an unusual mix of Chinese and Japanese characters whose lives intersect and connect on a evolving backdrop.

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Coco () is a modern Chinese girl, living an easy life in Beijing, cocooned in her world of friends and shopping and chaperoned around by the driver of her wealthy and workaholic boyfriend. It's almost Christmas (not surprisingly a Western and consumerist holiday) and bored Coco is dreaming of spending the holidays in Japan, the glamorous destination of her dreams, but it looks like her boyfriend will not be able to join her, and after an altercation, she decides to go on her own. Coco has a friend who is studying in Osaka and asks her to sort out a hotel booking for her but as soon as she lands, she realises that things are not like she had imagined.

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Her friend Ivy's () circle of friends and lifestyle cannot be more different from Coco's; she is a student who lives and works as a hostess in a bar in Shinsekai (New World) a dodgy and run-down area of Osaka and has booked for Coco a shabby and cheap hostel, run by her friend Masanobu (Ogawa Takeru). Not really the 5-Star Hotel Coco had in mind and after a mere glance at the tiny room, she runs away furiously and settles at Ivy's little place for the night. But her first night in Osaka is not going to be a quiet one; while Ivy is out at her night job, Coco gets to know a bit more about Masanobu and his attempt to revitalize the B&B family business, turning it into a hostel for tourists and she meets Komei (Tomonaga Komei) the young bilingual son of Ivy's boss Eri (Tomonaga Eri) who will act as her companion and interpreter for the night.

The plot thickens when the local Mafia crosses their paths, turning the drama into a proper thriller, involving Coco and her new friends. In the end, Coco will learn to value true friendship but the most important thing she will get from her unpredictable trip to Osaka is the shocking realisation that the fast-changing economy has shifted the myths and stereotypes about the two countries and changed dramatically the generalized image they have of each other. Japan is in a critical moment of recession and reality is very distant from the one conveyed by fashion magazines. New World may well be an area in Osaka but – ironically – Coco's prospering and comfortable China seems to be the real New World.

Even though the film triggers many social and economic considerations and touches several interesting points, the director chooses to fly slightly above them. He prefers a light approach and uses a gentle cinematic language that speaks directly to the heart of audiences. The best qualities of this movie are the sense of place it manages to create and the affectionate portrait of Osaka's less loved area of Shinsekai. Coco's nocturnal adventure unravels between karaoke bars, porn cinemas and small-time mafia crooks, but Shinsekai is, at the same time, populated by sympathetic characters of the like of Masanobu and his family, a loony street artist who is a light reminder of China's Cultural Revolution past, and the hostesses of the many night bars and clubs of the area. All together, they form a bizarre family whose glue is shared affection and tender respect. To mention Coco's words, Shinsekai “is shabbier than Bejing 20 years ago” but the warmth she realizes is missing in her comfy but fundamentally lonely Beijing life sucks her in.

The characters of “New World” are an odd bunch of very likeable people and it is very easy to get involved in their capers and care about them. It is actually Coco that emerges as a the less developed character but the obscurity surrounding her life prior the film's events, delivers clearly that sense of detachment from history that the current generation of young privileged Chinese seems to have. The acting is generally good and helps to create that feeling of family bonds I pointed out earlier. A special mention goes to the young child actor Tomonaga Komei who is as matter of fact and unsweetened as only a child can be.

Lim Kah Wai shows great confidence in directing this mix of drama and travelogue infusing it with empathy and experience, supported by the beautiful nocturnal photography. However, the movie loses its grip here and there, especially with the gangster sub-plot that feels lacking in tempo and utility; a long chase through the back alleys of Shinsekai is too long and not very suspenseful, and a violent and distressing event is a bit too easily resolved. Nevertheless “New World” is a heart-warming and entertaining work and an accurate snapshot of the fast changing East-Asian landscape. Watch it paired with Lim Kah Wai's 2013 other feature “Fly Me To Minami”, another Pan-Asian romantic adventure touching this time Hong Kong, Osaka and Seoul.

About the author

Adriana Rosati

On paper I am an Italian living in London, in reality I was born and bread in a popcorn bucket. I've loved cinema since I was a little child and I’ve always had a passion and interest for Asian (especially Japanese) pop culture, food and traditions, but on the cinema side, my big, first love is Hong Kong Cinema. Then - by a sort of osmosis - I have expanded my love and appreciation to the cinematography of other Asian countries. I like action, heroic bloodshed, wu-xia, Shaw Bros (even if it’s not my specialty), Anime, and also more auteur-ish movies. Anything that is good, really, but I am allergic to rom-com (unless it’s a HK rom-com, possibly featuring Andy Lau in his 20s)"

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