Plot: young tech employee meets a girl who might, or might not, be a cyborg.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, wrote English writer Charles Caleb Colton famously in 1820. It’s an old adage that rings true across various spectrums of the art world but none illustrates it better than cinema. Entire national cotton industries were spawned to accomodate imitations of the latest cinematic trends. Italy dominated the market for such ventures from, say, the sixies through eighties – but the rest of Meditterranean Europe (especially Spain) and the Philippines were never close behind. The Far East has a long cinematic tradition of the sometimes quite bizarre. In recent years China has emerged as number one in imitating popular movies from the world over on a fraction of the budget and without any of the talent. The Temptation of the Maid (released regionally as 超能萌女友 or Super Cute Girlfriend and The AI Housemaid, depending on your preference) is a Chinese reimagining and partial merging of two popular Japanese movies from a decade prior. As always with these kind of ventures it behoofs one to see the originals prior to this tolerable derivation.
Whenever a movie reaches a certain point of cultural – or critical mass regional imitations are bound to follow. The Temptation of the Maid (or alternatively The AI Housemaid, as it will be referred to hereafter) from director Xu Zeyu is not only a loose remake of Jae-young Kwak’s My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) but attempts to tug on the heart strings very much in the way of Hirokazu Kore’eda’s Air Doll (2009) and even has Zhang Lijun dressing up as a French chambermaid just like Bae Doo-na did in the earlier movie. The AI Housemaid fares as well as you’d expect under what are far from optimal circumstances, most of which can be leveled at the screenplay from Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao as well as this being a Q1Q2 production. Both men understand what made Jae-young Kwak’s original work so well yet their screenplay blunders in some pretty crucial areas. A few details have been changed around to hide the obvious thievery and the men even stumble onto a good idea occassionally either intentionally or by mistake. Suffice to say The AI Housemaid never come close to My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) in terms of emotional resonance, although it never stops trying.
In a surge of electricity white-hooded Xiao Xia (Zhang Lijun) appears in a parking garage in Shanghai. There she runs into an understandably confused Sam Jiaoshou (Cao Shengming) from who she picks up speech patterns and a simulacrum of humanity. In a department store in the city she runs into Cao Xiaoming (Chen Yuan) who is in the process of buying himself a present for his 32nd birthday. There Xiao Xia steals some expensive clothes, walks funnily in front of him and buys a cake at the bakery. The two end up Xiaoming’s favorite restaurant and, after an extended detour across the city, Cao realizes that Xiao Xia (or Little Summer) isn’t a ghost, a stray, or a beggar girl, and decides to take his new companion to his apartment. There he learns that she’s a cyborg sent to him by his senior aged, paralyzed future self (Fang Shialing) to look after his needs in the present time. At first he’s irked by Little Summer’s child-like antics but he eventually warms up her innocence and naivety. As an employee at a technology company Little Summer inspires him to invent a line of housemaid cyborgs, prompting Sam Jiaoshou to stage the world’s worst planned home invasion to obtain said designs. As always The AI Housemaid intervenes and diffuses the situation. Many years pass and Cao Xiaoming has fallen deeply in love with Little Summer. He realizes that The AI Housemaid has changed his destiny several times by just being with him.
At the forefront of Chinese cinema in the past several years have been the Film Bureau and Q1Q2. Both have been flooding the Internet with some of the cheapest (and, occasionally, good) productions across a variety of genres. Whereas the Film Bureau usually helms moderately budgeted genre pieces Q1Q2 always manages to do whatever the Film Bureau does far quicker, cheaper and with considerably less star-power. Before anything else The AI Housemaid is a largely faithful Mainland China remake of the Japanese movie My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) from a decade before. For the most part The AI Housemaid is able to work around its more obvious budgetary limitations (there is no grand disaster set to happen, special effect shots are kept to a minimum as is Zhang Lijun’s wardrobe, and choreography-centric action are fazed out almost entirely). What keeps The AI Housemaid from reaching its full potential is a widely uneven screenplay that checks all the boxes for a remake, occasionally wanders into a good idea but most of the time staggers around with no sense of direction. The pre-credit opening montage gives the impression that The AI Housemaid will be going for Cutie Honey: Tears (2016) production design but no such thing will be forthcoming.
My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was Jae-young Kwak’s love note to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The AI Housemaid ends up imitating several of the Terminator inspired scenes from the original but apparently has no idea why they were there in the first place. Most of the key scenes have some kind of equivalent in The AI Housemaid and where the screenplay deviates from the Japanese original is typically where it falls short too. The only thing that the screenplay by Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao actually improves upon is by giving the cyborg a name and making her the viewpoint character. The AI Housemaid is, first and foremost, the story of Little Summer whereas My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was ostensibly told from Jiro’s perspective. Chen Yuan is scruffy and likeable enough but he’s no Keisuke Koide. Not even by a long shot. In her part news anchor Zhang Lijun (张丽君) is adorable enough but Yang Ke, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Ada Liu Yan, Patricia Hu, Liu Zhimin, or Ni Ni (neither of whom this production could possibly afford) would’ve been a far better fit for the part that Haruka Ayase played. Despite that one major improvement, The AI Housemaid never becomes more than the sum of its various borrowed parts.
The initial meet-cute on the streets is virtually identical and it even copies the same joke (Cao Xiaoming crashes into a lamppost), like Haruka Ayase in My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) Zhang Lijun too zaps someone in the mall (not with her eyes, but with her fingertips), and the obligatory dance scene is rather improvised compared to the “do the robot” dance scene in the original. In The AI Housemaid it’s Lijun who gorges on spaghetti the way Keisuke Koide did in the original and the inciting incident is a home invasion instead of a restaurant shooting. Both cyborg girls project a holographic recording from their future masters out of their eyes but with Little Summer there’s no dramatic build-up to the third act resolution. That Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao don’t grasp the original’s far more subtleler moments is abundantly clear through out. There’s no equivalent to the “thumbs up” scene, there’s no pet named Raoul (or a counterpart for such), and Cao Xiaoming doesn’t travel back to his hometown either. One of the most genuinely touching moments in My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) is when Jiro breaks up with Cyborg She in a confused, drunken stupor and immediately regrets his decision afterwards. When the Tokyo earthquake hits and the two confess their feelings for each other it offers a profoundly moving emotional resolution to the second act conflict. The AI Housemaid blunders most catastrophically by not setting up any meaningful conflict or break-up in whichever form and thus there’s no dramatic tension. When Cao Xiaoming and Little Summer do get together in the third act it irrevocably rings hollow as neither has experienced any sort of growth or arc.
In recent years there has been a considerable influx of mostly Chinese imitations. Whether it’s the more conceptually ambitious and action-oriented Super Robot Girl (2015) or more plain comedic exercises as Jing Wong’s iGirl (2016) (with Chrissie Chau Sau-Na, Connie Man Hoi-Ling, and Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi), Heavenly Machine Maid (2017) (with Liu Zhimin), the Mainland China iGirl (2017), or Be Careful! Single Pain (2018) (with Wu Hao) they all draw heavily from either Jae-young Kwak’s My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) or Hirokazu Kore’eda’s Air Doll (2009). More often than not they seem hellbent on combining the two to varying levels of success. What they all invariably have in common is that sooner or later one or more of the cyborg girls will end up in a French chambermaid costume. Another thing these imitations all have in common is a tendency to be emaciated in terms of plot and feature tubby, blackrimmed glasses wearing socially handicapped nerd types in need of a confidence boost. The cycle of otaku fantasy fulfillment movies aren’t all that surprising in light of China’s fairly recent adoption of Japanese culture and entertainment. The problem of socially withdrawn youths or hikikomori seems to be manifesting in China as well. That domestic cinema would pick up on that shift seems only natural and logical. A decade-plus removed from the original it’s puzzling that there has been neither an American or Bollywood remake at this point, especially in light of the original My Sassy Girl (2001).
That there was going to be a world of difference between The AI Housemaid and My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was all but expected given the decade between both. Given the modesty of its budget it never was going to be able to compete with the original and its muddy screenplay only serves to make matters worse. Had this been given the big budget remake treatment then perhaps it would have fared better. Most remakes try to recreate the magic from the original without always grasping what exactly inspired said magic in the first place. The AI Housemaid is no different in that regard. It slavishly recreates many scenes from My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) but hardly, if ever, understands why they worked so well in the original. Vanilla Sky (2001) was a soulless Hollywoodization of the Spanish fantastique Open Your Eyes (1997), the American The Ring (2002) and The Eye (2008) barely understood why Ringu (1998) and The Eye (2002) worked so well within their respective cultural confines. After all China’s CCTV6 remade National Treasure (2004) as The Empire Symbol (2013). Remakes that improve upon the original are far and few to begin with. The AI Housemaid is a valiant attempt to interpret a Japanese/Korean movie for a Mainland China audience and, to a certain degree, it works as intended. More importantly, however, is that The AI Housemaid never resonates quite in the same way as Jae-young Kwak’s original work from whence it was derived. As hard as it might try The AI Housemaid is not the sprawling romance it probably ought have been – and that’s a pity because Chinese culture is usually better attuned to this sort of thing.