Thursday, March 08, 2018

Happy Chinese New Year from Hong Kong: Agent Mr. Chan

Well, this is too late to help anyone decide whether to see Agent Mr. Chan or not, but sometimes that's how it works out - I get hung up at work just long enough for Monday's plans for seeing movies to fall through, Wednesday really only works out because a less-perilous-than-expected snow storm keeps me home, and the snow actually showing up that night and Thursday means I work from home today and lose quality on-the-bus writing time. Sorry. It's probably way too late for people out of the area, as Boston got it a week into its US run, which came a week after it opened in Hong Kong.

It was a quiet screening, just me with a theater-hopper I've seen there a few times spending twenty minutes or so in the room, but to be fair, there was a Nor'easter on the way and it was 6pm on a weekday. I've mentioned before that Mandarin movies seem to do better than Cantonese ones here (even though the Hong Kong stuff is usually better than the Chinese releases at a similar budget), so that's not entirely unexpected. I did wonder a bit about the circumstances of this one's release - it's the fifth Chinese New Year release to play Boston Common, making me wonder a bit if AMC was loading up on them a little more as part of their battle with MoviePass (if MP not allowing use at that theater is driving people a couple of T stops away, maybe it behooves them to put a few more things you'd otherwise have to go to New York to see in the mix). It's also relatively low-profile in a way that makes me wonder if China Lion has become a victim of its own success; they took a lot of the early risks in establishing the idea of opening Chinese movies in the U.S. at the same time as China, and now that the Chinese movie industry is really booming and the money made from American releases is growing, they see the four biggest Chinese New Year films snapped up by Well Go, Lionsgate, and even Warner Brothers (which has to be kind of galling, considering CL released the first Detective Chinatown in America when it wasn't nearly so sure a thing).

This big spate of releases does seem to indicate a quiet period coming up; the only Chinese trailer that played before this one was Girls vs Gangsters, which Well Go doesn't show as booked for Boston. It's meant that the theater is trying to fill the pre-show with other stuff that may appeal to the same audience, and, man, I don't know that that necessarily includes Isle of Dogs, which I think I've seen before every Asian movie that's played in the past few months, and, boy, it's making me more conflicted every time. The movie looks neat, it's full of stuff I like, but it's also pure twee Wes Anderson, and showing a preview of a movie that seems to gleefully appropriate Asian culture before actual Asian movies… Well, I don't know about that.

Back to this movie, sort of: It's entirely possible that one of the reasons I was less than hugely impressed was that, as part of the Roger Deakins series, the Brattle showed Skyfall the night before. Given that it was part of the Deakins series and being shown on 35mm film (and, let's be honest, it's always kind of surprising to find that there are actual prints of something made in the last five years), it's easy to focus on how incredible it looked, but it does a pretty fantastic job of putting the Bond franchise back together in a more traditional but still modern way after Casino Royale took it apart, good enough to take a bit of the fun out of a movie that's spoofing Roger Moore-era Bond.

Dong du te gong (Agent Mr. Chan)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2017 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

The taller for Agent Mr. Chan offered the not-entirely-original, but still fun, premise of an obvious James Bond surrogate who got old and lame, which isn't really what it delivers; those scenes are taken out of one segment of the movie, and the actual way that's played isn't nearly as funny as what was sold. It winds up being one of a number of pieces that don't quite fit together, making for a generic spy spoof that just gets a few laughs.

In 1997, Chan Ho Yan ("Dayo" Wong Tse Wah) was Hong Kong's top spy, a charmer who, a mere three weeks after meeting Yu Heung (Charmaine Sheh See-man), is marrying her at the estate of her godfather, a notorious arms dealer. Dedicated to world peace, he destroys the mini-nuke he steals rather than giving it to his superiors, which gets him and tech-minded sidekick Genius (Cheng Sze Kwan) fired. Over the next twenty years, they're bounced from every spy agency until they're working as low-rent private detectives, while Heung has channeled her anger at being deceived into a career with the police (using every opportunity to punish Chan along the way), and she has recently been appointed Secretary of Security. When the Secretary of Finance (Lawrence Cheng Tan-shui) embarrasses himself in public after being given a peculiar drug, the official story and Heung's relation to the victim prevents her from investigating officially, and her best option appears to be hiring Chan, who follows a path that leads to the "Happy Girls" teen pop group headlined by Yuki (Larine Tang Yue-ping) and Angela (Cecilia So Lai-han), of all places.

Even considering that the filmmakers are training their sights on very specific targets, there's still a lot of potentially funny and clever ways this spoof could go, and the bit at the center where the easily-seduced, disposable "Bond Girl" winds up more capable and impressive but still angry may not be the absolute most original but it's at least fun, as is the direction they eventually go with a spy's greatest threat not necessarily being the other side but honesty. There are worse sources of humor than how what's cool is fleeing and what was life-or-death twenty years ago is no longer a big deal. The filmmakers don't often go that route, unfortunately, instead giving the audience a bunch of "hey! Bond stuff!" references that were the laziest part of the Austin Powers movies fifteen to twenty years ago, and snickering at Hong Kong idol nerds (who are, apparently, just like their Japanese analogs) before ultimately settling for being The Nude Bomb, only without the same sense of absurdity.

Full review on EFC

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