Thursday, January 25, 2024

Johnny Keep Walking!

Not the same Asian Film Corner as the last few times, but when all your posters are actually HDTVs, you can throw up "current Chinese movies playing, plus the one opening Friday" for a half-hour on either side of the movie's start time, and then change it up, as they were showing something different when I left.

Interesting thing: AMC definitely added more showtimes for Johnny Keep Walking! at some point; it was basically half a screen, alternating slots with Time Still Turns the Pages and apparently getting the bad end during the week when showtimes shifted to get rid of the 9pm screenings, but it wound up getting expanded to a full day's slate and held over for a second weekend, with pretty decent turn-out in the show I went to (which was admittedly a not-huge theater). I've occasionally wondered how much flexibility theaters have in adjusting showtimes now that people are reserving specific seats online a week in advance, and it seems AMC at least has a little here.

It's warranted here, too, because this one's pretty fun. Also, I apparently saw director Runnian Dong's previous film, Gone with the Light, but have zero memory or record of it aside from logging it on Letterboxd during 2020's virtual NYAFF (the one with the terrible streaming platform). I should maybe circle back to that sometime.

Nian hui bu neng ting! (Johnny Keep Walking!)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2024 in AMC Causeway #12 (first-run, laser DCP)

A thing I often wonder about while watching imported comedies like Johnny Keep Walking! is to what extent the rest of the audience is really digging the whole thing while I'm just enjoying the jokes good enough to punch through the language and cultural barriers. There are long stretches to this movie where I kind of see what kind of earnest silliness it's striving for, but don't quite laugh, which can make for a long-ish evening. On the other hand, when it does do so, it's kind of sublimely ridiculous, and I bit the expats, students, and Chinese-American folks behind me are having a really great time.

It starts out in 1998, with Hu Jianlin (Dong "Da Peng" Chengpeng) repairing a mirrorball at the new year's party for the factory where he works, eager to sing for his co-workers and the future looking bright. Fast forward twenty-one years, and he's more or less in the same place, right down to living with his mother, but the plant is now the Standard Component Factory for the Zhonghe group, a massive corporation with a big-city headquarters and investments in almost every business sector in China. His ambitions still don't extend much further than performing in the company gala, although co-worker Zhuang Zhengzhi (Wang Xun) is angling for a promotion to headquarters, and has in fact paid a substantial bribe and participated in some off-the-books scheming to make it happen. Unfortunately, Jianlin's application to perform and Zhuang's for a promotion get switched, so now Jianlin has a position in Human Resources that he doesn't understand, and his put-upon supervisor Ma Jie (Bai "White-K" Ke) - or "Magic", as everyone at headquarters uses an English nickname - realizes that he's been promoted by mistake. Fearing that exposing "Johnny" to his superiors will lead to him taking the fall, Ma enlists bitter six-year temp Pan "Penny" Yiran (Zhuang Dafei) to get his work done. The question is, will Johnny's country-bumpkin good nature make him the perfect patsy to execute a massive round of layoffs, or will it throw a wrench into the execs' plans?

Folks have been making comedies about less sophisticated folks crashing big business - Safety Last! with Harold Lloyd is hardly the first - though there are a lot of different templates. Johnny Keep Walking! tries most every variation at one point or another (although, oddly, there's no romantic subplot). Sometimes the pieces don't quite match up, as Jianlin can occasionally seem dim rather than just out of his element. It's hard, I think, to come up with jokes about corporate culture that haven't been done before, but the filmmakers handle their own goofy ideas well, whether it be the screwy way Zhuang winds up losing his contact in the company to the employees of this Chinese company choosing English names. I must admit to being kind of curious how the joke about Ma Jie not daring to go .with "Jack Ma" as a name lands with Chinese viewers.

Star Da Peng seems to handle this sort of thing a bit better in the films he writes and directs himself - finding the zany/deadpan overlap is tricky - and it kind of makes his "Johnny" fuzzy enough that the jokes aren't really about him, and the trio at the center never works as well as a unit as they do anchoring jokes about individual types and positions - Zhuang Dafei makes Penny enjoyably snarky without being abrasive and White-K is enjoyably frazzled. They're a likable enough set, at least, easy enough to root for, and certainly more fleshed-out than the scheming executives.

It's messy at times - the sequence where Jianlin seems to sell out really doesn't work at all - but it builds surprisingly well, doing a nifty job of getting weirder as Zhuang hides out in the city headquarters (minus pants) while driving toward a conclusion. The film ends on a fun musical number that works even for those of us that don't speak a word of Mandarin, and that's some solid execution!

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