Monday, November 15, 2004

Paper Marriage (Guo bu xin lang)

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

Here's what I don't get. Say you were a sociopathic monster, and you had built a nuclear/chemical/biological weapon, one which can cause the sort of complete eradication that most evil geniuses can only dream about. For a delivery system, would you mount it in the finest ballistic missile you could purchase, or would you instead get yourself a bunch of homing pigeons, tie strings to each of their legs, and hope that they can carry your WMD to its prospective target?

That's what Paper Marriage does. Put the ugly metaphor aside, and you have a series of pretty darn impressive action scenes at the end, but a truly horrendous delivery system. I'm not exaggerating here - there is no punching and kicking for the first hour of this ninety minute movie; instead, the audience is treated to some rather not-funny comedy. I don't think it's much exaggeration to say that when there is no fighting going on, this movie will remind you of something produced, written, directed, and acted by elementary school students.

Sammo Hung is former lightweight boxing champion Bo Chin (those who have seen Sammo recognize that this may be the funniest thing in the movie), but he's out of the sport and running short on money to pay his gambling debts. To earn enough to pay them off, he accepts money to marry Jade Lee (Maggie Cheung) so that she can secure her immigration papers and then, in two years' time, marry her boyfriend (there is an obviously shorter path here, I know). But when he skips out with the money, they have to try and get along, and come up with enough money to pay off the gangsters he owes.

Here's the biggest problem - Chin is a jerk, and we never really buy that he can be something else. When he starts to come around and have feelings for Jade, as the plot dictates he must, we hear him saying that, okay, now he likes her and understands that his hang-ups are really with his first wife, but it's not something that has been built up. As much as I like Sammo, I'll admit that once you get beyond his gimmick - the moves of Jackie Chan despite having the body of Jackie Gleason - he isn't exactly much of an actor, especially in this older movie. He doesn't have his co-star's expressive face or comic timing.

I don't know how bad the material they have to work with really is; bad subtitles can make anyone look like a poor actor dealing with an awful script, but the science experiments Chin subjects himself to for money are the funniest parts of the movie, and there's a hefty exchange premium as they try to convert "silly" into "funny". Speaking of the exchange rate, an early letter home from Jade specifies that she's in L.A., but a later scene takes place in the West Edmonton (Alberta) Mall - specified by name. Also, everybody in North America apparently speaks Cantonese, which would be less odd if an early scene didn't raise the issue of how well Jade speaks English. And just to point out how sloppy the script is, it can be divided fairly neatly in two - you'd think the money Chin owes the gangsters would be a ready-made set-up for the hostage situation and beatdown that must end the movie, but, no, that is actually resolved and a new problem added in order to get there.

But that does get us to the Edmonton Mall, where Chin and his friends (some of whom had been enemies before, but there are worse guys) confront the guys holding Jade hostage, and suddenly Sammo, Cheung, Billy Chow, and everyone else is in their element. A switch is flipped and the last twenty minutes is a nifty blend of "damn, that's cool" and "ooh, that's gotta hurt". If there's a pane of glass, someone is going to go through it, even if there's a ten foot drop on the other side. And even if it's made in Canada, it's still a Hong Kong movie - there's no doubt that someone has gone through the window, fallen, and landed on an unpadded floor. Everyone is good and bruised by the time this fight has gone up and down escalators, waterslides, and even a pirate ship set for a floor show set up in the middle of the food court?

So, there's the question - is twenty minutes of very cool martial arts worth an hour of pretty painful "comedy"? I don't know. On a recent message board thread, I told someone that they were missing out on some good stuff after they said they had a three-star cutoff, because a two-star movie can certainly have four-star portions.

That's certainly how Paper Marriage is - if I had this one on DVD, I'd probably seldom watch the first hour. Maybe that's the best way to experience it.

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