Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
When I reviewed this year’s crop of Lunar New Year releases a couple of months ago, there was one title that was conspicuously missing from the group of films that were released in North America for the holiday season: Stephen Chow’s The New King of Comedy. I don’t know why it didn’t get a release here. It could be because its production was too rapid for the international distribution system to absorb it. It might have something to do with the involvement of Herman Yau, an outspoken proponent of democracy in Hong Kong and thus potentially an unwelcome presence on the Mainland. Or, it may have just been overlooked in the mad rush to book The Wandering Earth on as many screens as possible (this appears to be why the U.S. release of Ning Hao’s comedy Crazy Alien got cancelled). As always, the why’s and wheres of the distribution of Chinese language films in the West remains an unfathomable mystery. Fortunately, however, the windows between theatrical and home video releases have become vanishingly short for Chinese films, and The New King of Comedy is now available on English-subtitled Blu-ray. And it is worth the wait: not only is it the best of this year’s Lunar New Year films, it’s the best Chinese language comedy in quite awhile, at least since, well, the last time Stephen Chow directed a movie, 2016’s The Mermaid.
The new film is neither a remake nor a sequel to The King of Comedy, the 1999 film that was the culmination of a decade Chow dominated as Hong Kong’s biggest and most reliable star (one example of Chow’s 1990s dominance: in 1992 he starred in every one of the top five films at that year’s box office: Justice, My Foot; All’s Well Ends Well; Royal Tramp; King of Beggars; and Royal Tramp II). He began directing in 1993, at first in the rapid-fire nonsense (“mo le tau”) style of his biggest hits, but gradually developing a more sophisticated relationship to his material and his star persona. In The God of Cookery in 1996, he cast himself as a famous chef named “Stephen Chow” whose horrible abuses of power in his treatment of everyone around him precipitates a downfall, wherein he finds himself again among the wretched street chefs of Hong Kong’s lower classes. Finding a kind of enlightenment, he usurps his rival and reclaims his fame and fortune. In his subsequent films, Chow’s heroes will begin in this same state of wretchedness, ignored or shunned by society, their special talents unrealized or ignored until they’ve undergone sufficient humiliation. The King of Comedy is the most human-scaled of Chow’s great films, taking place entirely within a mostly realistic small beach community where an action movie is being filmed. Chow plays an aspiring actor with an encyclopedic knowledge of acting theory, but every chance he gets to rise above his station as an extra is thwarted by fate, usually in the form of a slapstick disaster. He has a love interest, a local call girl whom he helps with her acting toward clients, played by Cecilia Cheung, and the film is as touchingly romantic as it is hilarious in its bizarre twists of plot. Chow’s next several films, Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, and The Mermaid, would become increasingly reliant on computer generated special effects, expertly balancing humor, heart, and spectacle to massive success both at home and around the world.
But this past year, as Chow realized that post-production on his sequel to The Mermaid would not be finished in time for the movie to open at Lunar New Year, he went back to basics. Dusting off a script he’d been working on for a few years and hastily assembling a cast and crew (including Yau as co-director: having completed nine films in the past three years, with a tenth on the way this summer, no one in Hong Kong knows how to make a movie more quickly, at present, than Herman Yau), he put together The New King of Comedy in a matter of months and rushed it out to theaters. Under these circumstances, and the traditionally loose standards of New Year comedy plotting, Chow would have been forgiven if New King was a slapdash, derivative affair, an amiable goof along the lines of Pang Ho-cheung’s Missbehavior, a solid but decidedly slight film. But instead he went ahead and made another great Stephen Chow movie.
The film begins, as the 1999 one did, with a shot of ocean waves. The opening of the original features Chow facing the water, back to the camera, shouting the film’s idealistic mantra, “Work Harder! Keep Going!” He’s absent from the new film's opening shot, as he has been from every one of his films since 2008, but the echo of the earlier film remains. We’re quickly introduced to an aspiring actor named Rumeng, played by E Jingwen. She carries the same acting manual, now every much dog-eared and bookmarked, that Chow had twenty years ago, and her mannerisms are much the same. She’s relentlessly optimistic—ten years working as an extra has yet to break her down. The film that follows will do its best to do so, throwing her into one humiliating situation after another: a botched plastic surgery, abuse from a now-downtrodden star who had been her idol (Wang Baoqiang, the one major star to appear in the film), abandonment by both a prettier friend and her boyfriend. Where the 1999 film was based around a hilarious John Woo parody starring Karen Mok, the film within a film in New King is called Snow White: Bloodbath in Chinatown, which is described to Wang, its star (he plays Snow White), as a “tribute to Chang Cheh’s Aesthetic of Violence.” Rumeng gets herself fired several times, mostly for her overeagerness in thinking through her simple roles as a stunt double, or as a corpse.
Where New King differs from the first film is in focusing more on Rumeng and her friends and family than in building increasingly bizarre scenarios for Chow to goof his way through (think his various interactions with the wannabe Triads, or the climactic shootout alongside Ng Man-tat’s cop). The perspective of her parents is especially important: King of Comedy is a film about struggling to make it made by a person who had very recently been struggling: Chow had been doing everything from bit parts (he’s supposedly one of the gangsters in A Better Tomorrow, but I’ve never spotted him) to hosting children’s TV (the local Hong Kong show 430 Space Shuttle, which Tony Leung also hosted in the 1980s), but had now achieved success beyond his wildest dreams. Now, twenty years later and a decade removed from his last starring performance, Chow has made a film about watching the next generation go through the same struggles he did we he was young, doing what he can to help them succeed (Rumeng’s big break will come, as E Jingwen’s has, with a Stephen Chow movie). Rumeng’s father vocally disapproves of his daughter’s career choice: why couldn’t she be a lawyer like her brother, or at least an online retailer like her sister-in-law? He throws her out of the house in an early scene, and yet sneaks behind the scenes of her work throughout the film, admonishing the people who bully her, cast, crew, and craft services among them, to be more respectful. She never sees this support, and even when, late in the film, her parents arrange for her travel to the big Stephen Chow audition, he won’t admit to it. But when she finally does make it, we see it not through her eyes, but through those of her parents. The King of Comedy was a movie about believing that if you work hard and stick to your dreams, you can find a kind of happiness in life with or without major success. The New King of Comedy is about that too, but it’s also about the joy and agony of watching your child struggle, and usually fail, to fulfill their dreams.
Jiang Wen rose to fame just around the same time as Stephen Chow did, also making his first impressions as an actor. His debut was Hibiscus Town, a 1986 film directed by Xie Jin, one of the few Third Generation Chinese directors from before the Cultural Revolution (Woman Basketball Player No. 5 , Two Stage Sisters ) who continued to work after it had passed. He followed that up with an incandescent performance in Zhang Yimou’s debut Red Sorghum (1987) and in the Silver Bear-winning 1990 film Black Snow. He made his directorial debut in 1994 with In the Heat of the Sun, a coming-of-age story set during the Cultural Revolution that, while reminiscent of the modernist historical films of the New Taiwan Cinema, A Brighter Summer Day or The Time to Live, the Time to Die, was nonetheless filtered through Jiang’s sardonic view of human nature. His subsequent films are all deeply, darkly comic at their core, while cycling through a variety of different genres: the World War II morality play Devils on the Doorstep (2000); the convoluted network narrative The Sun Also Rises (2007); the Western noir Let the Bullets Fly (2010); and the scattershot pastiche Gone with the Bullets (2014), which references everything from Busby Berkeley to The Godfather in purportedly telling the story of China’s first feature film. Some of these experiments have been more successful that others: where Let the Bullets Fly set a new record at the Chinese box office, and routinely ranks among the country’s best 21st century films, Gone with the Bullets' reception was much more muted, with mixed reviews and disappointing box office. Neither film got a real release in North America (Let the Bullets Fly played for five weeks, maxing out at 10 screens with a gross of $63,000, while Gone with the Bullets didn’t even get that), and that appears to be the fate with Jiang’s latest, Hidden Man, which premiered on the fall festival circuit after opening in China last summer (it barely outgrossed, Gone with the Bullets, but the reviews were more forgiving).
Like all of Jiang’s films, Hidden Man is set in the past, and like the last two, in the Republican Era, the period between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the war with Japan. Opening in 1922 and then skipping ahead fifteen years to the eve of the war, it’s the story of a young man’s attempt to get revenge on the men, one Chinese (Liao Fan, from Ash is Purest White and Let the Bullets Fly) and one Japanese (Kenya Sawada, form Devils on the Doorstep), who murdered his master and his family before his eyes. The young man, Li Tianlan, has been in America in the interim, a mere thirteen-year-old boy when the murders took place, he’s now grown up to be Bruce Handler, a secret agent and gynecologist played by the dashing Taiwanese-Canadian Hong Kong star Eddie Peng (Our Time Will Come, Duckweed). Returning to Beijing (pointedly now known as “Beiping,” the capital having been moved south to Nanjing), Bruce/Li begins a lengthy cat and mouse game with his quarry, now risen to prominence in the city (the Chinese as head of the police, the Japanese as the leading opium supplier). Helping him, sort of, on his quest is a wealthy man played by Jiang himself, whose motivations are never quite clear but certainly appears to be working to eliminate at least two of the three principals in this murder triangle.
Complicating things even further (because it isn’t a Jiang Wen movie if you can understand exactly what’s happening at any given moment) are two women: Liao Fan's flirtatious girlfriend (Xu Qing, hilariously sexy) who has a soft spot for Bruce, and a tailor who seems to know much more than she should about Peng and Jiang and their mission. Played by Zhou Yun, the tailor is the most charming character in the movie, or at least the most sympathetic. While Peng appears to have all the necessary components for movie stardom—he’s handsome, athletic, with an infectious smile and an air of utter wholesomeness—he struggles when required to tap into darker energies. Hidden Man is more successful than Rise of the Legend, Peng’s take on Wong Fei-hung that is similar in plot (turning Wong into the driver of a mystery-revenge plot), if only because Jiang surrounds him with much better actors than that film did. Zhou, Liao, and Jiang himself are able to play all the multiple shades of motivation and embody the film’s broad and constantly shifting tonal spectrum that Peng himself cannot. He’s like a square-jawed all-American (well, all-Canadian) boy set adrift in a world of schemers and liars and murderers and he cannot hope to keep up. The best version of this kind of performance is Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China. But Peng, while I do like him, reminds me more of KJ Apa’s Archie on Riverdale.
For what is essentially an action comedy about double crossing and betrayal, Hidden Man is shockingly protracted, with long stretches of the film devoted to delaying the inevitable showdown. This is, of course, part of Jiang Wen’s perverse streak: where the two Bullets films overwhelmed the audience with a dizzying array of schemes and wild shifts in tone and plot, Hidden Man is explicitly about putting off the payoff for as long as possible. It’s Jiang’s own character at the heart of this: always he counsels patience and caution to all sides of the fight. This allows Zhou’s character room to unfold, and she ultimately proves to be the film’s true heart. Like Bruce she too had a quest for revenge, but was advised to wait and wait until the right moment, but that moment never came and perhaps now it never will. Possible allegories here abound: Liao is proclaimed as the heir to the Ming Dynasty, and thus represents Old China, as does Zhou’s attempt to recover from childhood foot-binding (she’s Future China); Peng’s American heritage, and the actor’s Hong Kong stardom, represents the Western influence on China; the Japanese influence is obvious. Jiang Wen sits at the center, attempting to juggle it all, to prolong the inevitable showdown between China and the West and Japan, knowing he stands a good chance of getting caught in the crossfire.
As Anti-Japanese War spy stories go, Hidden Man doesn’t measure up in suspense or moral seriousness with Kim Jee-won’s 2016 The Age of Shadows, or Ann Hui’s 2017 Our Time Will Come. But it’s got a lightness, a breezy joy in its artifice that is hard to find in Chinese cinema today outside the old school Hong Kong directors (Jiang in many ways seems to me to be most akin to Tsui Hark, with their punkishly cynical approach to traditional genre material). Repeatedly Jiang lingers on Eddie Peng running across the rooftops of Beiping. He runs in various outfits, including half-naked wearing only a diaphanous robe, and he even bicycles across them. Zhou Yun, still recovering from surgery, has trouble walking, but she leaps from roof to roof with balletic grace. Fully embracing the enhanced colors of digital filmmaking, Jiang’s films are bright and vibrant, filled with reds and whites and browns, unbelievable purple blue twilights and lustrous imperialist interior spaces filled with rich yellows and blacks. He often cuts at the speed of dialogue, at times approaching Baz Luhrmann levels of excess, but never quite tipping over into indulgence, knowing when to slow things down and let a scene breathe. Hidden Man expends a lot of energy toward not a lot of action, but when it comes, it comes in a flurry: a cavalcade of bloody revenge that’s as comic as it is grotesque. 20th century Chinese history is, for Jiang Wen, a chronicle of corruption, stupidity, cruelty, viciousness, and betrayal by everyone and against everyone. But it’s also a place of mystery and wonder and silliness, where justice and honor and true belief are possible, but extremely rare and deeply buried. His gleefully anachronistic, chaotic period pieces understand our shattered history in a way the more literal-minded cinema of his peers in the Fifth and Sixth Generations never can.