Monday, October 08, 2018

Chinese Counterfeits: Hello, Mrs. Money and Project Gutenberg

I was initially a bit grumpy when looking at the bookings for this weekend's Chinese movies, surprised at how few screenings there were for Project Gutenberg, which has been getting trailers for a while and which was looking like Chow Yun-fat doing what he does best (crime), compared to something I literally had never heard of until Wednesday in Hello, Mrs. Money. It made a little more sense when I saw the cast list for that other movie - it's the latest from the Mahua troupe, who made the very funny hits Goodbye, Mr. Loser and Never Say Die, both of which had Chinese National Memorial Day premieres as well. Yeah, bet on that one, I guess.

That doesn't necessarily seem to be how attendance worked out, though - the 12:30pm show of Hello, Mrs. Money was not bad for a matinee, but Project Gutenberg was in one of the 'plex's largest screens and was packed enough that latecomers wound up sitting in front of me, which isn't always easy to do given my fondness for using my peripheral vision. Sure, it may have been packed because there were fewer screenings (just 4:30pm and 9pm), but still, it's been a while since I've seen Chinese movies this crowded, and the theater would be putting an extra show on the schedule for Sunday.

Funny thing: I wound up liking the surprise more than the one I'd been anticipating for some time. Both have their flaws, but Hello is better at plowing past them while Gutenberg just lets them stick out until they'll be kind-of-explained. On the other hand, I'm kind of curious to see Gutenberg again - it may be an obvious bid to get the audience to see just how many hints they've dropped about an unreliable narrator, but that doesn't mean it's not effective.

Li Cha De Gu Ma (Hello, Mrs. Money)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 October 2018 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, digital)

Hello, Mrs. Money is a classic cross-dressing farce, but it comes by that pedigree honestly - it's adapted from Brandon Thomas's stage comedy Charley's Aunt first performed in London back in 1892 and Broadway soon after. That its translation and adaptation from British play to Chinese play to Chinese movie to subtitling for worldwide release means that "Cha Li" gets referred to as "Richard" throughout the film is an amusing bit of extra trivia, but it's kind of fitting - the movie tends to find something funny even when it makes weird or screwy choices.

"Richard" (Song Yang) has come to Aman Island in Malaysia for a splashy engagement party where he'll officially propose to Lulu, the boss's daughter whom he's been seeing for five years. She's not enthusiastic, but father Andy Wang is having money trouble, and Richard has a rich but reclusive aunt who could make that go away. Also strapped for cash is Mr. Liang, the mentally unstable father of Richard's best friend Jerry (Allen Ai Lun), who also happens to be married to Lulu's sister Lily. He's ready to swim with the sharks so his son can get the insurance, but Jerry persuades him to try something else - there is a rich widow on the way, after all. That she apparently isn't could be disaster for everyone except maybe Huang Canghai (Huan Cailun), Jerry's assistant who takes the opportunity to crash in Aunt Monica's fabulous suite - until he's discovered and persuaded to impersonate the seldom-seen woman. This would probably be a bad plan even without the wild card where Monica (Celina Jade) has come ashore and disguised herself as a hotel maid to find out if Richard and Lulu are for real or just after her money.

It's a dumb plan, but it's the sort of dumb plan that makes for good farce, necessitating funny voices, trying to take a phone call from the other person in the room, being in two places at once, very much unwanted romantic attention, situations that look compromising because they're seen at the exact wrong moment, and all that good stuff. Writers Qian Chenguang and Wu Jinrong do an impressive job of taking all those building-block scenes and figuring out the way that they can stack up without collapsing, letting director Wu Yuhan and the talented cast play most of the movie fairly straight-ahead rather than twisting things around to keep them from falling apart. Sure, this story isn't exactly what one might call likely, but the unspoken assumption that people believe what they want or need to believe does a lot of work, as does just not having characters who could mess things up in a scene and letting the audience fill in why, if they care, rather than contorting things in a way that makes the viewer work.

Full review at EFC.

Mo seung (Project Gutenberg)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 October 2018 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, digital)

Movie stars don't exactly age just like the rest of us - even the ones who don't go in for surgery have personal trainers and agents and paparazzi and on-screen persona who in some way give them a harder push one way or another than those of us who only gradually realize that we're not quite the way we see ourselves in our heads anymore. Some go gray and bulk up to become on-screen dads, some defy the aging process and keep doing what they're doing, and some, like one-time international superstar Chow Yun-fat, lose the soft features that made them baby-faced anti-heroes and become lean, weathered villains. It's a transformation that suits him for most of Project Gutenberg, although the rest of the film doesn't catch up to his comfort level until it's almost too late.

Chow plays Ng Fuk Seung, the head of an international counterfeiting syndicate known to law enforcement in the late 1990s only as "Painter", whose "Superdollar" is a replica of the U.S. hundred-dollar bill that is uncannily good despite the impressive new security measures that were added with its recent redesign. He's unknown in large part because everyone who worked with him has wound up dead, except for Lee Man (Aaron Kwok Fu-sing), currently rotting in a Thai prison, and he doesn't want to talk for fear Painter will kill them all. But Hong Kong detective Ho Wai-lan (Catherine Chu Ka-yee) is determined, and then there's Yuen Man (Zhang Jing-chu), an internationally famous artist whose fiancĂ© was killed by Ng (as was Ho's boyfriend and colleague, in the same incident), but who was close to Lee back when they were starving artists in Vancouver and so offers to post bail. So, he begins there…

… and it's a strange, somewhat disjointed story that writer/director Felix Chong Man-keung has Lee Man tell, one which starts with art criticism and then dives into deep, likely fictitious detail about how one goes about counterfeiting a hundred-dollar bill before getting back to Painter's apparent obsession with making sure that Lee Man can reunite with Yuen Man, and then, just as the story is starting to catch up to the bloody events that made Painter a high-priority target all around the world, the story gets another wrinkle that is injected so casually that it's fair for the viewer to wonder if they missed something important in the middle of Painter's weird commentary on whether Lee has what it takes to be the leading man of his own story. It's a script that often seems much too crowded for its own good, with too much detail in some places and not enough in others.

Full review at EFC.

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