Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What a Wonderful Family (2017)

Hey, folks who distribute Chinese films in America, could you take an hour or two to and fill in your movie's IMDB entry? I know the English-speaking audience is very much a secondary concern for you, but us being able to easily dig up who we liked in a movie and write about it can't really hurt, either the movie you've got in theaters now or the next one with that person. I've had to use my phone to take a picture of the closing credits way too many times, and it's not very useful when the movie's in 3D or, in this case, the credits just zoom by.

So, if I've misattributed anybody, I apologize, let me know and I'll fix it.

I also apologize for never getting around to reviewing the original What a Wonderful Family!, which was one of the highlights of last year's Fantasia Festival for me. I got generally bogged down trying to cover too much and work last year, and while I'm ahead of that pace right now, I'm thinking that you've got to be a great deal younger or more obsessive than I am right now to keep up the pace I did the first few years I went to that festival. Or, I guess, actually doing it as a job and therefore setting time aside to make sure the thing you get paid for gets done.

It is kind of screwy, though, that since the time I saw that film, not only some folks in China have managed to shoot a remake, but Yoji Yamada has written and directed a sequel which should be releasing in Japan right now and will hopefully play Fantasia and/or the New York Asian Film Festival this summer, but it still hasn't made it to the US. You'd think a genuinely funny comedy by the guy who made those great samurai movies a few years back might get some sort of American distribution, but it looks like another case of the Japanese studio either asking for the moon or just not considering it worth the effort to aggressively court foreign distribution so that they could strike while the iron was hot. I don't get it sometimes; as much as it's cool that Japanese pop culture can do pretty well for itself without worrying about export, part of that seems to be because DVDs cost legitimately stupid amounts over there, and you'd think getting some money from foreign sales could help.

Which is why I'll probably order the Hong Kong BD of the first movie rather than the Japanese or hypothetical American one, to maybe catch up before hopefully seeing the second at a festival. But the fact that I have to is just another data point for the "Asian film distribution in America is screwy" hypothesis.

Duan Pian Er (What a Wonderful Family! '17)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2017 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

Yoji Yamada's What a Wonderful Family! was one of the best comedies I saw in 2016, and that other movies more likely to get an American release pushed ahead of it in my review queue is something I rather regret, both because it was a missed opportunity to bring some attention to a very funny movie and because it would have had something more concrete to refer to when writing up this Chinese version arriving roughly a year later - am I remembering the Japanese as better than it was and therefore seeing the remake fall short of an ideal rather than a reality, are the jokes blunted because they trigger memory before they trigger laughter, or is this just what it looks like, a copy that isn't quite as sharp as the original.

Both movies feature a large family that mostly lives under one roof. Retired civil servant Wen Jinghui (Lee Lichun) and his wife Pan (Zhang Weixin) bought this house in the Beijing suburbs a dozen years ago, and share it with their two sons, mild-mannered piano tuner Cong (Huang Lei) and businessman Yuan (He Jiong), as well as Yuan's wife Ding (Li Sun) and their young sons Jun and Han. Middle daughter Jing (Christina Hai Qing) moved out when she married her equally high-strung and eccentric husband Wanli (Wang Xun), and Cong is considering it as he prepares to propose to his girlfriend Lin (Kirsten Ren Rongxuan). This apparent stability comes crashing down when Jinghui, coming home after another afternoon playing badminton and drinking with friends, finds out he's forgotten Pan's birthday, but she's already decided what she wants, and has the application for a divorce already prepared for his signature.

I'm not sure that the engine that makes this story work functions quite as well in Beijing as it does in Tokyo; a friend of Jinghui's mentions that having this whole family under the roof of one house is unusual while it has traditionally been the norm in Japan, and while one-child-per-family has been relaxed in recent years, there are a lot of siblings running around here. Allow it, though, because it lets the shock of Pan's bombshell spread quickly through a large group, getting especially funny material out of the broadest characters, as Jinghui, JIng, and Wanli have the most obviously hysterical reactions. Indeed, the general panic among that trio leads to a bunch of funny moments as co-writer/director/co-star Huang Lei uses their panic over how what they'd taken for granted may not necessarily be the case fuel some pretty good farce, including a private investigator and slapstick that reassures the audience that Jing and Wanli are probably on more solid ground than they think.

Full review on EFC.

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