Saturday, August 15, 2015

Go Away Mr. Tumor

Another week, another Chinese movie released in the U.S. Ho-hum, I'm getting used to it now. Got to see that preview for Office again, too, although a couple of things:

(1) C'mon, I just saw a very different Korean film called "Office" at Fantasia, and it's a boring, generic name. The Cantonese name literally translates to "Gorgeous Office Workers", and it was called "Design for Living" at other points.

(2) I don't really want to complain too much about the technical end of getting movies onto my screen because I know even less about that than everything else, but the preview does not look well-encoded at all, kind of like DVD blown up to theatrical size, which is not a good look for a musical that is supposed to look slick. It sometimes seems to be the case for a lot of the actual movies that come over from China, too - a few days ago, I listed To the Fore as "digital" rather than "DCP" because, for such a well-shot film, it didn't always look great on screen. That might have been the result of using small hand-held cameras, but it's not alone. I've overheard conversations about how getting a good DCP isn't as automatic as it sounds, and I wonder if tighter schedules mean lesser encoding.

One other thing - while digging around for better information on who plays who on IMDB and other sights, I noticed that this movie's star, Bai Baihe, was also in Monster Hunt, a big effects-driven sci-fi adventure that is crushing the box office in China right now. Now, the images I've seen from in make it look like China's still a fair distance behind what Hollywood can do, but if they ever catch up, man, is Hollywood in trouble. Think of how many movies like Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation have Chinese media capital companies credited, and how the fact that these big action movies travel so well in China is a big part of what makes them profitable - why we're getting a Pacific Rim 2 in particular. I've commented to friends on occasion that big action movies are what Hollywood does best ("Nobody else can make The Avengers"), but if other people start being able to approach them...

Gun dan ba! Zhong liu jun (Go Away Mr. Tumor)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2015 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

The "cancer comedy" is a minefield as genres go; cancer's no laughing matter but it's not a difficult path from tragedy to absurdity to jokes, at least for some. That's the path Xiong Dun took when she was diagnosed, creating a webcomic to chronicle her treatment and recovery. That part of it isn't in the movie, although the bits shown during the credits make it clear just where the film's upbeat attitude came from.

As things start, Xiong Dun ("Fay" Bai Baihe) is a 29-year-old commercial artist with a birthday coming up, a boyfriend who seems a bit embarrassed by her free-spirited ways, some great friends in amateur boxer Lao Zheng (Zhang Zixuan), workaholic and roommate Emmy (Li Yuan), and co-worker Xiao Xia (Liu Ruilin). Her birthday is rough - she gets herself fired and finds out her boyfriend is seeing someone else - and that's before she passes out in the middle of her apartment. When she wakes up, she's in the hospital, and while Dr. Liang (Daniel Wu Yan-zu) is handsome, he's also an oncologist and his diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is the sort that can bring even someone as perky as Xiong Dun down.

And, boy, is Xiong Dun perky. She's the sort of high-energy goofball whose behavior will cross over into "obnoxious" fairly quickly for some viewers, and I can't anyone for seeing her that way. She's self-centered enough that even her friends comment on it, and that lousy day she's having is largely of her own making. She spends a lot of time in her own head when she should be paying attention to the world around her, and while that's fun for us - the filmmakers give her a vivid imagination full of wuxia, zombies, freezing cities and more whimsical things, and it's a rare moment when those bits aren't funny - but having them happen when she's in the middle of the street can seem like them trying to force quirky eccentricity.

They don't need to, though, because Bai Haihe is awfully darn charming in this movie. She dives into the broad comedic bits with gusto and sells them by not just having great comic timing but infusing Dun with a genuinely positive attitude and just the right sort of self-awareness that says she knows it's a bit of work to be so cheerful but that she's not hiding anything. When Dun does have to confront the seriousness of her condition later on, she doesn't lose the character's hopefulness and charisma. She sometimes has to wrestle with an overdone script, but she can smile her way out of most of its excesses.

Daniel Wu plays her doctor and, at least in her head, love interest, and he does a nice job in a role the could be stiff or one-note. His sense of surprise that the nurses and other staff find him tough to approach is believable in part because he actually does make Dr. Liang more friendly than intimidating, and his scenes with Bai come off as a very enjoyably developing friendship even if Dun is thinking romance. When he's not around, Zhang Zixuan, Li Yuan, and Liu Ruilin make a coterie of friends that are entertaining enough to not just seem blandly supportive, while Liu Lili and Li Jianyi play things more solemnly as Dun's parents.

Director Han Yan and the writers make some odd choices - there's a point in the movie where I wasn't sure whether they were deliberately skipping the scenes where Dun gets bad news as a characterization thing (whether to show that she skips over those moments in her mind or to prevent them from having too much weight in the audience's impression of her) or if the Chinese health care system just routinely talks to the other people in the patient's life first. On the other hand, they also build a lot of funny scenes in both her fantasies and real life that play into the cast's comedic strengths, and the fantasies look good - they come off as whimsical even though, once you tally them up in the end, they are almost all actually fairly dark scenarios, which is probably just as good a characterization of Xiong Dun as everything Bai Baihe does. When it is time to become more serious, the film downshifts well, mostly without feeling like a radical change from the rest.

It's interesting that they don't actually include the comics in the film until the credits, either as animation or even something Dun is working on. On the one hand, it might be a bit too close to making an ouroboros out of the story, but if they acted as a sort of outlet for her, it's kind of an important part of the characterization that's missing. We see her drawing a lot, but not toward that end.

Go Away Mr. Tumor is uneven at points, but it might be wrong if a comedy about someone with lymphoma wasn't - consistency and everything make a sort of sense would be dishonest. So, yeah, this is messy, but it puts a smile on one's face at unlikely times, and that seems to be what Xiong Dun is all about.

(Formerly at EFC)

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