Cannes 2024 review: Blue Sun Palace (Constance Tsang)

Blue Sun Palace is a deeply sorrowful film that heralds a serious new talent in the American cinematic landscape.”

As a poignant reflection on the immigrant experience, Chinese-American filmmaker Constance Tsang’s debut feature Blue Sun Palace set in the Chinese community of Queens, New York, is a world of wandering souls looking for a human connection. Loneliness, solidarity, and the longing for someone to bond with dominate this deeply affecting film that can be a disorienting experience at first. If it weren’t for the occasional English-speaking supporting character, one would be excused to think the film was a Chinese production. Not only is the dominant language in the film Mandarin, the visual language is also distinctly East Asian. Featuring a stellar cast that includes Tsai Ming-liang’s muse Lee Kang-sheng, Blue Sun Palace is a deeply sorrowful film that heralds a serious new talent in the American cinematic landscape, someone who can shed light on the isolation of being an immigrant and how much things like family and community mean when you are far away from a place that you once called home.

Tony (Lee) and Didi (Haipeng Xu) are on the brink of a relationship. When after a night of dinner and karaoke he misses his bus, she says he can stay with her. Though she denies it the next morning, her roommate and co-worker Amy (Wu Ke-Xi) still wants all the gossip on the mysterious man Didi snuck into her room. The women work in a massage parlor, but Didi sees a future in Baltimore and in the restaurant business for her and her culinary-gifted friend. That dream is cut short by a violent hold-up after closing hours, an event that sends Amy into a spiral of depression. Tentatively Tony comes into her life, providing both of them an opportunity to work through their grief and to have someone to connect to. But is grief and the need for human contact, and something that resembles family, enough to build a lasting connection?

The characters in Blue Sun Palace are in limbo, as if with one leg in an insecure future but with the other still in the past. They have all adopted American names, but everything that surrounds them feels Asian, and that includes Tsang’s visual language and set decoration. Faye Wong is the artist of choice when singing karaoke, and food plays an important and recurring role as a gateway into memories. More tangible connections to the past are brittle: Tony has strained and loveless video conversations with his wife back in Taiwan, which he had to flee because of a crippling gambling debt. Everybody holds on to their old world because the new world is harsh and unforgiving, but there is no going back, only forward. Solidarity and a shared experience are all they have, and that is little to go on.

Tsang renders this lingering sadness beautifully with the help of cinematographer Norm Li, whose grainy textures and moody images evoke dampened spirits and the cinema of Wong Kar-wai and Tsai Ming-liang. Casting Lee Kang-sheng as a forlorn man seeking a touch of humanity is already a nod to the Taiwanese master; nobody can say a line like “Funny how quickly the people you love become strangers” quite like him. But Tsang also manages to capture (while not deliberately imitating) the melancholic, downbeat mood of some of Tsai’s cinema (I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone or Days are reference points here). The compositional work is consistently strong, the mostly static camera only moving to underline the drama of the scene. The film opens with a scene of Tony and Didi in a restaurant, their faces in close-up and the camera slowly panning back and forth. Tony later tries to capture the emotion of that scene again with Amy, and so does the film, but the feeling is fleeting as Amy realizes that Tony is merely trying to fill a hole that her friend left in his heart.

It is these sorts of touches that elevate Blue Sun Palace into a mesmerizing and heartbreaking low-key masterpiece, and when you realize that this is a debut, it starts to dawn that Tsang presents herself as an exceptional talent. She has clearly chosen subject matter she’s familiar with, but the cinematic choices she makes provide a texture and emotional depth that transcend the story. The Columbia alumnus’ film firmly stays on the ‘Asian’ side of the cultural divide in the Asian-American experience by showing how characters have to navigate this duality, as opposed to recent films like The Farewell and Past Lives looking at this through a more American lens (with Past Lives trying to meet halfway through Teo Yoo’s character; it’s the Americanized Nora that has to face the duality though, not him). If Tsang chooses to broaden her audience by eschewing the subtitle requirement for her next film, will her sensibilities shift as well, and what kind of film will that result in? It is a truly exciting question, because Blue Sun Palace firmly puts Constance Tsang on the map of young directors to keep an eye on in the future.