Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chandni Chowk to China

I nearly had this review posted on EFC before noticing that there's a second "n" in "Chandni Chowk", which just makes it more fun/difficult to spell. I really hated being disappointed by this, because, as I mention in the review, I first heard of it at Fantasia this summer, as Gordon Liu did a Q&A after a screening of Disciples of the 36th Chamber. He mentioned that one of his next projects was an Indian movie where he would be playing the villain. There was an exchange that I guess you really had to be there to appreciate, as someone in the audience asks if he would have to wear a goatee as the villain, and Liu responds (through his translator) that he would be "a very handsome man!"

And he is. They put him in a nice suit and give him Oddjob's hat with which to slit a few throats, and he is outright stylin'. He is, honestly, too awesome for this movie - it's almost a bad thing, as he's two or three tiers above everyone else in awesomeness.

Well, maybe aside from Deepika Padukone, who is Aishwarya Rai-level gorgeous.

Chandni Chowk to China

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2009 at FEI Capitol Theatre #6 (Bombay Cinema)

Even though I've seen more Bollywood movies than most people I know, I don't have a particular affinity for them; they've basically got to involve something I'm already interested in. Koi... Mil Gaya had spaceships; Krrish was its sequel and had superheroes. Chandni Chowk got on my radar when Gordon Liu mentioned during a festival appearance that his next project was playing the villain in an Indian movie. It's a pity that the movie doesn't deserve the Shaw Brothers legend.

We start out in a village near the great wall of China, where the villainous Hojo (Liu) is exploiting the villagers to get rich, and they yearn for the return of their legendary hero, Lieu Sheng. An oracle tells them that he has been reincarnated in India, in the person of Sidhu (Akshay Kumar), a cook who works in his father's Chandni Chowk food stall and is constantly trying to luck his way into a fortune. Local con artist Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey) misleads Sidhu as to why the Chinese want him, but crazy things start happening as soon as he arrives in China: He quickly crosses paths with Hojo's henchwoman Meow Meow (Deepika Padukone), a dead ringer for Indian infomercial star Sakhi (Padukone again), who is in China to pick up some product samples and memorialize who Police Inspector Chiang (Roger Yuan), who apparently perished at Hojo's hands along with Sakhi's twin sister Suzy when they were just babies.

Chandni Chowk to China has a number of problems, but the biggest is that would be much better off without its main character. Sidhu spends much of the movie as an annoying moron clowning around on the periphery of the Chiang/Sakhi/Suzy/Hojo story; when he does decide to get serious in the last act - you can tell, because he shaves off the ridiculous mustache and gets rugged-looking five o'clock shadow as he trains in martial arts - Sakhi immediately gets pushed to the side, doing little more than standing in the background watching Sidhu (whom she now inexplicably adores). Sidhu does have a story arc of his own, in learning that his father Dada (Mithun Chakraborty) is right when he says that success comes from hard work rather than luck or destiny, but it's just empty words until much too late in the game.

It doesn't help that sometimes the filmmakers seem to think the audience is as dumb as Sidhu. It throws in narration for things that need absolutely no explanation, and has flashbacks to things that happened five minutes earlier. If a filmmaker feels that the audience has that short an attention span, perhaps he or she should not be making two-and-a-half-hour movies. Chandni Chowk to China may also set some sort of record for how often an awkward-sounding title is repeated over the course of the movie, and that's even without considering that it's a much-repeated phrase in one of the musical numbers.

The musical numbers themselves are a mixed bag. Chandni Chowk is much like recent American musicals in that it often needs to supply a reason for the characters to be singing and dancing. In some ways, that makes even less sense - would Sidhu be a goony dancer inside his own dream sequence? They are impressively staged, though. The other choreographed sequences, the fight scenes, fare better; they're overseen by Ku Huan-chiu, who has that job on many of Jet Li's movies, and though there's some obvious wire work, many of the hand-to-hand fight scenes sell it very well, even if Kumar and Padukone aren't the veterans Liu and Yuan are.

I came to the movie for Gordon Liu, and he does not disappoint. The filmmakers don't try to make him sing, so he can just concentrate on being menacing and handing out beatdowns when one is necessary. This is the first I've seen of Akshay Kumar, and he's actually not bad when called upon to do physical comedy or when the character is called upon to be prickly in the obligatory "why are you making me do these repetitive menial tasks when I want to be trained in martial arts" scenes. He just seems to be far more annoying than intended when called upon to be whiny and pathetic. Deepika Padukone is a pleasant surprise in her dual role; while Sakhi often seems a stereotypical Bollywood female lead (absolutely gorgeous but perhaps too polished), Meow Meow lets her show off some tomboyish charm. Ranvir Shorey has kind of a nothing part, but Mithun Chakraborty is quite cool as the father figure who commands respect.

The thing that really gets me about Chadni Chowk to China is that there are some pretty enjoyable bits in it - Sakhi and the James Bond style gadgets she gets from her infomercial supplier, fun bits of mistaken identity, a nifty fight scene where Chiang and Sidhu fend off a good-sized mob, and anything with Gordon Liu. The last joke sends the audience out laughing. For those who have never seen a Bollywood film, it's a fun novelty, but it could have been much better.

Also at eFilmCritic, with two other reviews.

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