Monday, February 12, 2024

The Movie Emperor.

Another quiet Hong Kong movie night at the theater, although when you go to a movie during the Super Bowl, that's how it goes. As I mention in the review, I was kind of hoping for a crowd so that I could get a bit more of a sense of how well it plays to its intended audience, but, nope.

Still, I dig it, and it's one I'd recommend to my independent film friends who really like movies about making movies; it feels more or less universal to 2024 but also, I suspect, very specific to China in some ways. Particularly the opening bit during the awards show. You can't quite fit the entire Hong Kong film industry in a room, no matter how much you see a lot of the same people in the movies that make it across the Pacific, but there's some chummy messing around during that sequence that I kind of buy that I wouldn't during the Oscars.

Anyway, looks like it's done after tomorrow because there's only this tight little gap between Lunar New Year and Valentine's Day, and apparently Table For Six 2 is still in good shape at Causeway Street even though it had a smaller crowd than this did at the Common. It certainly feels like one where, after it has a brief playing-to-Chinatown run, Neon or IFC or Sony Classics or someone could pick up the rights, cut a new trailer, and successfully pitch it to audience at places like the Coolidge without either group knowing about the other release.

Hong tan xiansheng (The Movie Emperor)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2024 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

Just before the movie started, I posted that I hoped that this would draw a decent-sized crowd from Chinatown or Chinese college students to show up and laugh at jokes that went over my head so that I'd know if the movie was actually funny. As it happens, I think I laughed more than anyone else in the theater. Some members of the small audience walked out. It is, I gather, an acquired taste.

It is the story of actor "Dany" Lau Wai-Chi (Andy Lau Tak-Wah), aka "Brother Chi", one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong; he started at 17 and has been a draw for 39 years. He's up for Best Actor at the Hong Kong FIlm Awards, only to lose to "Jacky Chen", playing a peasant. He, therefore, looks for that sort of role, and finds a script by Lin Hao (director Ning Hao) which he sees as being about fatherly love, though Lin sees it as more about inability to communicate. Still, Lau brings sponsors and funding, but he's also been in the movies so long that he doesn't really know how to play a common person or even be a regular person: He and his wife (Kelly Lin Hsi-Lei) have divorced, but it hasn't been the right time to announce it yet, so they continue to live in the same house, and his longtime assistant Lam Wai-Kowk (Tan Lap-Man aka Paul Sinn) is ready to quit and hasn't even started to deal with Chi's attempts to get to know what an ordinary man's life is like.

I don't blame the folks who left early. The Movie Emperor is very much one of those movies about making movies that feels very inside-baseball whether it actually is or not. Its deadpan sense of humor can be dry as heck, and half of that is how there's this profound emptiness to Brother Chi. There are moments of really delightful absurdity, if that is your thing, but it's not really a comedy that builds to zany, absurd situations which would have seemed ridiculous at the start but strangely inevitable by the time they happen. Peculiar things happen, but they don't necessarily make the next one funnier, and it's hard to guess if anything comes of the eventual moments of self-awareness.

If one knows the Chinese film scene better, there are probably a lot of clever bits that flew over my head, especially since I've got no clear idea just how much director Ning Hao and star Andy Lau are referencing their own public personae here, and I suspect that there's something particularly pointed about how the film's primary sponsor is essentially vaporware, looking to promote a logo and a vibe more than an actual product, or a young director working in digital space being called an "uploader". Chi's paranoia about being filmed leads to a surreal moment or two toward the end, and I'm especially curious how a joke that quickly cuts a couple ways - a resident of the village where they're filming responding to a request to see ordinary people with "by 'ordinary' you mean 'poor'" followed by a quick assurance that, of course, China doesn't have poor people any more - plays to folks who aren't quite so many steps away from it as I am.

A lot of the best jokes are kind of visual and low-key, like the carefully drawn-out opening about how a red carpet is precisely laid out before things get messed up, cutting to a surreal bit of Chi resting in his hyperbaric chamber as a perfectly-framed tree is felled in the background. The film has a lot of that sort of weird visual gag that doesn't really offer a punchline, although it does also offer a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments, with my favorite perhaps being an out-of-nowhere flying kick that leads to a bit of disaster.

About a month and a half ago I praised a Tony Leung performance by noting that co-star Andy Lau was unavoidably Andy Lau in comparison, and I'm not sure what to make of that here, because "Dany Lau" is clearly meant to be a riff on him, but Dany is an utter blank, driven here by an inferiority complex and a vague sense of "fatherly love" being important, but if there's anything beyond the self-centered nature of the character, it's hard to find. Lau is good at this emptiness, it turns out; he makes Chi feel like someone you might meet, interact with, and never know what he's thinking rather than some sort of malevolent sociopath. He's not quite a void, but he's sort of the idea of a movie star the way long abstracted to whoever he was when he started. It's good work, but difficult to get a handle on by its nature, and the funny material winds up being around him.

I laughed quite a bit nonetheless - the gags that land do so flawlessly, and the film is the right kind of weird throughout - but I'm also curious what will stick with me or reward a closet look.

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