Chinese Odyssey 2002

cast: Fay Wong, Tony Leung, Zhao Wei, Chen Chang, and Roy Cheung

director: Jeff Lau

86 minutes (PG) 2002
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Paul Higson

Films that spoof and reference can scream of geek central, something that is occasionally wished should be kept to the fan circuit. Shaun Of The Dead was entertaining but ultimately unfulfilling because it was reference base first, story second, originality little-where. There are many ways around it. You might like to try putting the plot first as Joe Dante does in his best films, the reason The Howling, Innerspace and Small Soldiers work but Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Explorers don’t. Alternatively, a film might distance itself from the contemporary with the passage of time turning the content of the film in question into a mix of real laughs and curious little mysteries (for this go to any 1940s’ Bob Hope film). Say hello, here’s a third. How about the spoofing relates to a popular culture that is neither your own nor one you have common access to. New to me is a sub-genre called the ‘New Year film’, the Chinese cinema equivalent of a British stage pantomime, a celebration of heroic romances roping in star names to exhibit comedic talents most unexpected of them. It is a little like tuning into the Morecombe & Wise Christmas Special and wondering which thespian or plum-voiced newscaster was going to place themselves at the pair’s mercy this year. This subgenre is guaranteed terrific box-office once a year. Chinese Odyssey 2002 is a worthy introduction produced by Wong Kar-wai and directed by Jeff Lau, it is a rich and talented cast led by Tony Leung and Faye Wong, returnees from Kar-wai’s Chungking Express. Not all the references are unknown to a world cinema junkie like me. There are references to other Wong Kar-wai films identifiable or believed understood, the blessing here is that you don’t know to what extent the references run and can simply get on with being entertained.

A key element to this fare is the traditional identity confusion, often involving cross-dressing. Girls that are obviously girls play boys who, to those populating the film, are indisputably boys. Exaggeration, direct assaults on film technique trends, anomalies, anachronisms and high farce are liberally sprinkled in these films. It is going to end positively, now that is not in question. All you have to do is sit back and await the happy resolution and enjoy the wild route taken there.

The Dragon Phoenix Inn (yeah, I ticked that one off, obvious enough) is an eating-house run by the adorable Phoenix (Zhao Wei… presumably pronounced Zowie!). Her brother, Yilong (Tony Leung), also known as King Bully, a local sod of a bugger, has returned to the consternation of the town populace following two years of travelling trying to get a lost love out of his system. He determines to stay until he can find a husband for his sister, his presence in the meantime damaging her restaurant trade. The customers unwilling to enter the premises with him around, he tries to kick them back in through the doors and when that fails he eats all day at a rival restaurant so that another’s custom is diverted back to sister. A stranger impresses Yilong, but that stranger is the runaway Princess Wushueng (Faye Wong), and while Pheonix is falling for the stranger, the stranger is falling for King Bully and before we know it the palace guards are upon them. Escaping them again, her brother the emperor (Chen Chang of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Black Cloud in that, there is a Purple Cloud in this) persuades the Empress Dowager (Rebecca Pan from Days Of Being Wild) to allow him lead the search only then to excuse himself to become a style guru inventing the afro and bedecking his aides with accessories to their great embarrassment. Oh, and naturally, he falls in love with Phoenix. It’s a big aw for all, with several chuckles and as many belly laughs along the way.

There are completely unexpected visual gags like the hilarious slow motion fight sequence in which the film is let off the hook while the actors go into the choreography at a quarter speed, rolls and all. The fight-styles are a terrific piss-take of all that drunken-monkey-blind-ghost nonsense of the ‘old school’. We are introduced to the ‘arcane’ Iron Hand technique, while Zuo Leng-chen is nifty with the ‘Thousand Hands’ style and King Bully is practised at ‘Flying Over Grass’. The young Emperor is trained in the exceptionally silly ‘Swordplay Eyes’, cross-eyed and fuelled by the flirting of a woman. The laughs are delivered rat-a-tat during the sequence in which the principal lovers are trapped in mud and if you are not laughing at the beginning of the episode you will be by the end of the absurdities.

Some cracking lines survive the translation. One challenger, Juo Leng Chen (Roy Chung), believes himself prepared to take the brother and sister on trained, as he is, to fend of combatants in their delivery in any kung fu style. He is made short work off when the siblings abandon style and just go berserk on him with anything that comes to hand. “They hit me with a folding chair,” he recounts to camera, like the embarrassed victim in a documentary, “The wound still bleeds sometimes.” The comedy face contortions actually work a treat and Zhao Wei is the most delightful and effective at this. There is plenty of the unexpected. The film also takes time out to tweak the heartstrings and insert strong romantic messages. Unlike a Zucker brothers’ film there are episodes of relative calm and beauty that almost succeed in transcending it from routine idle spoof.

Production values are high, the colours wonderful and the cinematography as much given to presenting the film as well as any classy Chinese cinema as it might be homage to the beautiful films under skit. No extras, only the scene selection, and the trailers that you will find on any in Tartan’s current Wong Kar-wai collection. The running time, again, is shorter than that given on the box, 86 minutes (105 is wrongly stated). Do see!