While “Love in Taipei” promises transportive and transformative escapades with its adaptation of Abigail Hing Wen’s novel “Loveboat, Taipei,” the story’s core strengths are undervalued in the translation from book to screen. This Paramount Plus feature, centered on a young woman embarking on a life-changing overseas journey, only pays lip service to the struggle of a first-generation Asian-American caught between two worlds. Instead, it places more emphasis on her romantic entanglements with two young men who all too often motivate her foundational change. Director Arvin Chen cleverly brings us into her psyche through whimsical aesthetic techniques and fantastical asides, but doesn’t make her emotions palpable enough to touch our hearts.
Eighteen-year-old Ever Wong (Ashley Liao) has always felt like an outsider in her tiny suburban town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, being one of only three Asian-American students in her predominantly white school. Her parents (Jacko Chiang and Alexia Kao) emigrated from Taiwan so they could create a better life for her in America, but in doing so, her dad was demoted from doctor to pharmacist. If it wasn’t enough dealing with the usual parental pressures to excel, Ever has decided to shoulder her father’s sacrifice, choosing a future in medicine over her heart’s desire to dance.
However, all that’s about to change when Ever’s parents gift her with a surprise trip to Taipei for the summer before shipping off to college. The study tour is an intensive eight-week immersion program in which pupils learn about their Taiwanese heritage — but it’s nicknamed “Loveboat” because of the students hooking up after hours. Ever is plunged into the deep end on her first day, meeting her gregarious roommate Sophie Ha (Chelsea Zhang) and adversary Rick Woo (Ross Butler), a prodigy whose perfection in all areas of life looms large over hers. You can immediately predict where that relationship is going. But not until Ever meets smart slacker Xavier Yeh (Nico Hiraga) and reunites with her Aunt Shu (Cindy Cheung) does her world truly shift on its axis, providing the clarity she’s craved as to her life’s purpose.
The film’s DNA resembles Netflix’s “To All The Boys” franchise, both on screen (with the inclusion of co-star Butler, a similar tonal lightheartedness, and the blueprinted love triangle) and off (the films share the same music supervisors and some of the same producers). To a certain extent, this helps recapture that magic essence and let it live again in another story told with touching specificity. Ever’s Cinderella moment, walking into a fancy cocktail party in a light blue dress, clear-eyed and confident, is heartrending, and there’s an empowering montage where she inevitably steps into her own power, to plan her school’s festival/benefit.
Yet all these legitimately strong character moments would have felt more satisfyingly earned had our heroine’s change been motivated internally, stoked by personal growth, and not by other people. Ever’s wardrobe shift from casually conservative to on-trend fast-fashion, as denoted by Stephanie Chang’s costume designs, charts her character’s evolution — but that too happens because of external influences, like Sophie and Aunt Shu. The idea for Ever’s third-act epiphany to restore order after chaos is given to her by Xavier. And the finale is robbed of meaningful sincerity: Ever isn’t the one who invites her clueless parents to see her dance dreams realized.
Liao turns in noteworthy work as a shy, sheltered gal ready to come into her own. She’s almost too good at playing a character who’s insecure about standing out, since ironically she sometimes struggles to elevate the cheesier facets of the younger-skewing material. Zhang is a revelation, full of vim and vigor. Hiraga, a hilarious highlight in supporting roles in “Booksmart” and “Rosaline,” tackles his character’s vulnerable aspects with appealing earnestness.
“Love in Taipei” is a clear franchise starter for the streamer — not only because it seeds complicated relationships in a the sprawling cast of characters, but also because there are two more Wen-penned novels (“Loveboat Reunion” and “Loveboat Forever”) to mine. Though this introduction leaves much to be desired in terms of its stifled poignancy, potential sequels mean another chance for an unforgettable journey. It’s just too bad this initial outing got stuck in customs.