Movie Reviews - 2018 postsThursday October 11, 2018
Movie Review: Hello, Mrs. Money (2018)
The actual title of “Hello, Mrs. Money” is “Li Cha’s Aunt” (《李茶的姑妈》). Transpose the name and you get the idea. It’s based on “Charley’s Aunt,” the 19th-century British farce that became a 20th-century Jack Benny comedy, which is now this 21st-century Chinese rom-com/finger-wagging reminder to China not to lose itself in its quest for riches.
Is there something about empires that demand comedies about falling fortunes and men in drag?
Whatever, it’s not good. Given the filmmakers’ track record, it’s not very popular, either.
Mahua FunAge was formed in 2003 to stage plays, then branched out into TV in 2013. Two years later, it released its first movie, “Goodbye, Mr. Loser,” a kind of remake of “Peggy Sue Got Married,” in which a loser goes back 20 years in time, and, with his knowledge of future pop songs, turns himself into a pop superstar. It grossed $226 million. Last year, Mahua released “Never Say Die,” a body-switching rom-com: $334 million. Earlier this year, “Hello, Mr. Billionaire,” the sequel to “Loser,” was released: $370 million. Boom boom boom.
Then fizz. This one is sputtering. No idea why. Would be interesting to get Chinese thoughts on the matter. I wasn’t a huge fan of the others, but they are comedies and a lot gets lost in translation. That said, for me, it’s definitely been a downward trend: most laughs (“Mr. Loser”) to least (“Mrs. Money”).
At a Sunday matinee show at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle (att.: 3), most of my time was spent waiting out overlong set-pieces and not-exactly #MeToo-friendly scenarios. Nothing funnier than a man in drag being sexually assaulted by a grinning lothario who won’t take no for an answer. Nothing funnier than date-rape drugs sprinkled into drinks. It felt like vague consolation that the powder was less sedative than Chinese aphrodisiac, and the people who drank it were already in relationships. At the same time, those relationships were hardly worth saving. The deer that lost its antlers/penis for the aphrodisiac must‘ve gone: “You’re shitting me. For this?”
Let’s see if I can break down the plot.
Andy Wong, CEO of a company that’s quietly going bankrupt, has two daughters: LiLi is married to Jerry (Allen Ai of “Never Say Die”), a corporate VP with a roving eye; LuLu is pursued by Richard, the titular Li Cha, whom she can’t stand because he loves her so. She agrees to marry him anyway to save her father’s business. Richard’s aunt, you see, is Miss Monica (Celina Jade of “Wolf Warrior II”), an expat worth tons, whom no one has ever seen. Everyone is awaiting her arrival at a lavish engagement party on some tropical island. Except Miss Monica doesn’t show. Or she shows up in disguise—as a maid. She wants to see if the love is real.
You got all that?
Meanwhile, our main character, Jerry’s assistant, Huang (Huang Cailun), a flunky who dreams of riches, and who has set up everything perfectly for Miss Monica, spends a night indulging himself in her suite. When he’s discovered by the others in a bathrobe and with a towel wrapped around his hungover head, he’s assumed to be Miss Monica, and Jerry and Richard get him to play along. Antics ensue.
The most tiresome set piece has Huang running from one end of the island to the other, dressed as either Huang or Miss Monica, depending on the situation and demand. One time, of course, he shows up for Huang’s duties dressed as Miss Monica.
The most problematic subplot involves Jerry’s father, who wants to kill himself because he, too, is now bankrupt. Instead, his son suggests he make a play for Miss Monica. The father’s idea of “making a play” is to be the grinning lothario mentioned above.
Increasingly absurd, the movie reaches a face-palm crescendo when both Jerry’s dad and Jerry’s boss threaten suicide unless Miss Monica (Huang in drag) marries them. So a wedding is staged where she agrees to marry both. Except she doesn’t. Instead, she (Huang in drag) counsels the crowd against the pursuit of wealth. I.e., the movie has everyone pursuing wealth and its message is: Don’t pursue wealth. This message brought to you by a company making hundreds of millions off so-so comedies.
That said, Huang’s (or the Chinese government’s) finger-wagging speech leads to my favorite part of the movie. Huang’s ex and her fiancé happen to be on the island, and both wind up at the wedding. After Monica’s/Huang’s speech about being true to yourself, the fiancé stands and applauds this important message—then quickly declares his love for Miss Monica and asks for her hand in marriage. This is followed by a flurry of similar offers from other guests, including one foreigner pushing his child forward and saying, “Say hi to your new mommy!”
At this point, with Monica/Huang in wedding dress pursued by a greedy crowd, there’s almost a “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” vibe. Would that it were that funny.
Movie Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is stupid from the get-go. The characters are stupid, the filmmakers make stupid choices, and everyone is stupid about the one thing the movie should be smart about—money—since that’s the only reason it exists: to take our money.
Here’s a minor, stupid example.
Apparently the place where the dinosaurs live, which is apparently called Isla Nublar, has an active volcano that’s about to blow. Bye-bye, dinos.
Some people, though, including former high-heeled PR flak Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), are working overtime to save them. We see her walking into her warehouse office wearing sensible shoes and carrying Starbucks-y coffee, and talking to the kids working the phones: a T-Rex-phobic tech geek named Franklin (Justice Smith of “The Get Down”); and a tough-as-nails, I-guess-she’s-got-a-medical-degree young woman named Zia (Daniella Pineda). They’re the new kids on the block.
Meanwhile, an old kid from the lab, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), unseen in the Jurassic movies since 1997, is testifying before a Senate subcommittee and says this: “We altered the course of natural history. This is a correction.” I.e., We shouldn’t have brought them back; it’s probably best to let the dinos die.
That’s not a bad dichotomy. Two likeable characters on opposite sides of an issue. I’m with Malcolm but I see Claire’s side, too.
Except when Malcolm says the above line about “a correction,” the head of the subcommittee, Sen. Sherwood (Peter Jason*), says this: “Are you suggesting the Almighty is taking matters into his own hands?”
Wait, what? Wow, that’s some leap. The worst part: I don’t know whose leap it is: Sherwood’s, for bringing God into the equation, or the filmmakers’—screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) and director J.A. Bayona (“El Orfanato”)—who I guess want to condemn Bible-thumping pols. Either way, it’s unnecessary. Let’s say Sherwood is a Libertarian who doesn’t think it’s the government’s place to save owls, whales or dinosaurs. Malcolm has just given him an out. “Hey, this leading scientist says nope.” Instead, before the news cameras, and thus Claire watching TV—and displaying the first of her 50 shades of dumbfounded reaction shots—Sherwood says, “This is an act of God.” I’m sick of powerful Bible thumpers more than you can imagine, but even I thought this was gratuitous.
(* The reason Jason looked familiar to me was because he played the redneck bartender dealing with Eddie Murphy’s Reggie Hammond in “48 Hrs.” Great scene. I saw it many times while ushering at the Boulevard Theater in South Minneapolis. And now Hoss is a senator? Way of the world.)
Again that’s just a minor stupid thing from the first five minutes. It gets worse.
10 million dollars
Private industry gets involved—in the form of wheelchair-bound rich bastard Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the former partner of beloved dino creator John Hammond (Richard Attenborough). Lockwood’s assistant, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), contacts Claire, and gets her to contact her ex, handsome raptor wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), who is the only one who can get close to “Blue,” the supersmart raptor he helped raise. (Was all of this in the first movie? I forget.) Lockwood and Mills say they want to save the dinos but that’s obviously a lie. It’s a “Jurassic” movie. Someone has to have a stupid scheme that blows up in their face. Munching will ensue.
Oh, and there’s a little girl, Maise (Isabella Sermon), playing her own game of hide-and-seek in Lockwood’s mansion. It’s Lockwood’s granddaughter. He’s raising her because her mother died in a car accident. But looks are exchanged, a telltale photo is hidden. What could it possibly be—other than the obvious: that she, too, is a clone, probably of the mother. And ... it’s that. The reveal comes two-thirds of the way through and presented as if it were news.
Everything’s telegraphed. When Claire, Grady, et al., land on Isla Nublar, they’re greeted by a sunglasses-wearing, paramilitary dude, Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine), whom we know we can’t trust—and not just because Levine played Buffalo Bob in “The Silence of the Lambs.” The camera just holds on him in a certain way. He says things like, “We’ve got your back, brother,” patting Grady on the shoulder, and Grady looks at his shoulder as if it's infected. But even Wheatley’s betrayal is stupid. They need Grady to bring back Blue and they need Blue alive, right? So when does Wheatley reveal his duplicity? Back at the ship? Nah. Immediately. He shoots Blue with a tranq, and Grady with a tranq*, but allows Blue to attack one of his men. In the struggle, Blue gets shot. Now the target is bleeding to death**.
(* I did like Wheatley blowing a puff of air at a tranqued Grady, who, no longer able to stand, collapses. A serious dick move.)
(** BTW: Why do they need Blue alive? Don’t they just need the DNA—as with the dead Indominus Rex retrieved in the cold open? Or do they need Blue to help train the next gen? But—again—aren’t the new Indoraptors super well-trained already?)
So what’s the nefarious scheme? The least imaginative one possible. Rather than send the dinos to their own island, as Lockwood intended, Mills transports them to Lockwood’s estate, puts them in cages in the basement, and plans to sell them on the black market. When Lockwood finds out, he demands that Mills turn himself in. Instead, Mills kills Lockwood. The lickspittle turns.
Here’s another detail that’s so unnecessarily stupid I can’t stand it. Mills needs a black market connection or auctioneer or something, so he meets with Gunnar Eversol (Toby Jones, doing a bad American accent), who’s supposedly “the best.” Gunnar actually flies to the Lockwood estate in Northern Cal for the meet. But as soon as he gets there, he acts as if he can’t do it. Not for moral reasons. Because he doesn’t think it’s worth his time. He acts as if selling dinosaurs is small potatoes.
By the idiot logic of the movie, he’s almost right. Once the auction begins, before a creepy collection of international war profiteers and Big Pharma, the first dinosaur, an ankylosaurus, is sold for ... wait for it ... $10 million! Gunnar and Mills are actually happy to get such a huge amount, but I immediately flashed on Dr. Evil’s outdated ransom demand: one million dollars. Seriously, don’t Connolly, Trevorrow and Bayona—not to mention Universal—even know the value of their product?
And the idiot hits just keep coming. Mills makes the argument that animals have long been used in war—horses, elephants—and I’m like, “Sure. 100 years ago.” Gunnar introduces the indoraptor as “The perfect weapon for the modern age,” and I’m like, “Wouldn’t one missile take care of it?”
As for our ostensible hero, Grady? After he wakes from his tranq-sleep by a dino’s tongue just as the lava is about to turn him into a burnt hot dog, and he hooks up with Claire and Franklin, and all three make their escape in that plastic ball from the previous movie—riding it over a cliff and into the ocean and swimming onto a nearby beach (cue “From Here to Eternity” homage), then stealing a truck and driving it onto the departing ship just as the island is blowing, but, bummer, back in America, getting captured and tossed into one of Lockwood’s dungeons, after all that, his great idea of escaping from their cell is to taunt the head-butting stygimoloch in the cell next door so it keeps ramming the wall between them and eventually breaks into their cell. I'm like, “That's the plan?” But of course it all works out. Because as the animal charges him, he’s able to leap out of the way at the last second. As we all do with charging animals.
We know how it’s all going to play out, too. The dinos—or at least the indoraptor—will get loose, eat/kill the bad guys, and threaten our heroes. And who will come to their rescue? Blue, of course.
But even within this obvious framework, they keep adding stupid shit. Maise, for example, knows all the nooks and crannies of the mansion—we’ve seen her hiding out in a dumbwaiter, for example. But when the indoraptor is chasing her, guess where she flees? Into her bedroom. No, not the closet. Into her bed. No, not even all the way under the covers. She just pulls a sheet up to her chin and looks around frightened as the indoraptor approaches. I think it’s supposed to be a Spielbergian moment like in “Poltergeist”—what happens when imagined monsters become real—but Spielberg began from that premise—with the kid in bed, trying to sleep. He didn’t have the kid flee into it*.
(*That said, in terms of direction, the bedroom scene, with its monstrous shadows, is the best in the movie. A shame it was constructed out of such stupid sand.)
So after Blue saves the day and kills the indoraptor—but not before the indoraptor kills Gunnar and Wheatley—our heroes are overlooking the dungeonous basement where a gas, I guess, has leaked, and the poor dinos are suffocating. They’re being poisoned. So now we get a callback to that original dilemma: Save the dinos or let them die? Claire is on the precipice of pushing the button to release them into the world; but then she pauses, stops, can’t do it. She can’t introduce dinos into northern California. It will wreak havoc. And ruin property values.
If this were a movie made 20, 30, 50 years ago, that would be the end of it. But it’s 2018, “Jurassic” is worth billions, and Marvel/Disney has already paved the way with its continuing universe movies. Shouldn’t Universal join that club? (It tried, certainly, with its abysmal Dark Universe.) Sure, the dinos could be resurrected for the next movie, but that’s same-old, same-old. They need to continue.
So guess who presses the button that releases them into our world? Maise, of course. Because, as she says, “They’re like me.
Yes, honey, they’re just like you. Except they’re up to 100 feet long, up to 100 metric tons, and have razor-sharp teeth. And they’re not very smart.
Of course, considering how well this movie did ($1.3 billion worldwide), neither are we.
POST-CREDITS SLIDESHOW OF BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD REACTION SHOTS
When the movie began, Patricia said, “Oh, I like Bryce Dallas Howard.”
But as the movie progressed...
And we kept getting dumbfounded reaction shots like these ...
Well, feelings changed. *FIN*
Movie Review: Juliet, Naked (2018)
“You look ... well.”
It’s a line spoken halfway through “Juliet, Naked” by Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) to his ex-girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), and O’Dowd nails it. His character is an insufferable professor of cultural studies who’s jogging on the boardwalk with his new girlfriend, Gina (Denise Gough), in their small, sleepy, British seaside town, when he spots Annie with some dude and a kid on the beach. So he condescends to say hello. He literally descends to their level. And after they greet, and while Annie’s trying to explain something to him, he leads the conversation to where he wants to lead it, which includes the above line. It should be well-meaning but isn’t. The way O’Dowd says it, eyes showing a faux concern, it implies: You look well for someone who’s been through what you’ve been through. You look well for someone who no longer has me.
It’s both awful and delicious.
It’s delicious because we anticipate the fate that awaits him. Because the thing she’s been trying to tell him? The dude with her? That’s Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), the reclusive musician Duncan has been obsessed with since forever. Duncan has a rec room and a website devoted to Tucker and considers himself the world’s foremost Tucker Crowe expert. He’s his everything.
It’s the ex’s ultimate revenge. You leave, but I wind up with your greatest love.
The truth is banal
“Juliet, Naked” is that increasingly rare animal: a small, fun, funny and original movie made for adults.
That said, it felt a little less original when I found out it was based on a Nick Hornby novel. Hornby is like his own genre, isn’t he? He writes of fallible loves and overwhelming obsessions.
His obsessives have gotten less sympathetic over the years—at least in the movies I’ve seen. In “High Fidelity,” who doesn’t like John Cusack and his obsessive top 5 lists, which are really about obsessing over the girl he’s lost. BoSox fan Jimmy Fallon in “Fever Pitch” is a little less sympathetic simply because he’s played by Jimmy Fallon. And now here, with Duncan, we get the least sympathetic of all. Also the funniest. Most of the laughs in the movie come from O’Dowd’s line readings and reaction shots. He’s both absurd and relatable. So much so, that when Patricia and I were walking home, laughing about this or that bit, I had to ask.
“Do I remind you of him?”
“Who? Duncan? No! Why?”
“You know. Obsessive behavior. Like me with Lin-Manuel Miranda or Joe Henry.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head, but maybe thinking deeper on it this time; maybe wondering if there wasn’t something there.
Ethan Hawke is perfectly cast as the reclusive rock star who released an album of quiet love songs, “Juliet,” in 1993, then promptly disappeared. He was playing a gig in Minneapolis, took a break, never came back to the stage. He was a handsome young man on the indie rock scene who went poof, and back then Hawke was a handsome young man in the indie movie scene who didn’t. He kept working and growing and taking risks: “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead,” “The Woman in the Fifth,” “Boyhood.” He let his looks sag. Everyone in Hollywood has superhero abs and he’s got a paunch. Hawke has a lived-in quality to him now, like the worn, musty sweaters he wears in this movie, and the air of a dude who finds life more perplexing as he ages.
Tucker and Annie are opposites. He took chances, she didn’t. He left messes. Duncan and the other fans parse the rumors about why Tucker left and what’s become of him, but the truth is banal. He fathered five children by four women, but was never much of a father. Some children didn’t even know about the others, which leads to this bit of dialogue with one of his eldest:
Tucker: Parenting. Sometimes I think I could use a manual.
Lizzie: Or tips such as, “Always tell your kids they have siblings.”
Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) is visiting him in ... is it New England? Pennsylvania? He lives with his son in a remodeled barn behind the house of his latest ex. We actually see him at his best. He’s raising a child rather than running from one. The child, Jackson (Azhy Robertson), is endearing. The actors work well together. Tucker seems both father and younger brother. He’s teaching the boy about life but also seems more broken. Maybe that’s the nature of Ethan Hawke now: to seem broken.
Tucker and Annie get together for the same reason Duncan and Annie break up. Someone mails Duncan a demo of “Juliet” called “Juliet, Naked” (Cf., Paul’s “Let It Be ... Naked”), and she has the gall to: 1) listen to it first, and 2) not like it. When Duncan posts his glowing review, she, in the comments field, tears it down. Then she gets an email from someone agreeing with her. Tucker, of course.
Is it odd that Annie is the central character but we know the least about her? She curates at the local museum, and sees herself in a1964 photo of two couples on the beach. Specifically, she’s drawn to the face of one woman, who, she finds out later, regrets all the chances she didn’t take—the timidity with which she approached life. Not enough carpe diem, or seizing the day—if we want to back to “Dead Poets Society,” the movie that helped Hawke break out. But that’s about all we get of her. It’s a weakness in the film—and particularly odd since two of its three screenwriters are women: Tamara Jenkins and Evgenia Peretz. The director is Jesse Peretz, who also directed “Our Idiot Brother” and episodes of “Girls.”
I also didn’t buy why Tucker left the music scene in 1993. It’s the movie’s big reveal but it lands with no weight. It just glances off. It’s just, “Oh ... I guess?”
Is it a weakness that there’s a tonal difference between the two men? Duncan/O’Dowd is coming from a place of comedy while Tucker/Hawke is closer to drama, romance. Hawke is muted, O’Dowd broad. But I think that’s a plus. And it feels real. In any group you’ll find your broad-comedic types and your muted-romantic types. It’s particularly true with our perceptions of significant others. The one out the door is the clown, the new one is serious and vulnerable.
It’s a shame “Juliet, Naked” didn’t find a bigger audience. Roadside Attractions released it in mid-August, but in four theaters. It waited two weeks before expanding to 300/400+. I don’t get the delay. It’s adult romance. August is perfect and September too late. But it will find its audience after its theatrical run. It’s too funny and sweet not to.
Movie Review: Big Brother (2018)
It sounded like fun. The new teacher for ne’er-do-well kids in a poor Hong Kong neighborhood is Donnie Yen, Ip Man himself, who, when the kids act up, or when gangs threaten the school, breaks out the gongfu. It’s “To Sir, With Love” meets “Iron Monkey.”
I was also intrigued by what ne’er-do-well kids in a Chinese movie are like. Turns out:
- Two brothers have an alcoholic dad, so one escapes into video games, the other into Ritalin
- One girl feels like her dad doesn’t love her so she wants to race cars
- A Pakistani kid wants to sing but remembers when others kids laughed at him because his Cantonese was good even though his face was dark, so he can’t
- One boy schleps for a local gang
There’s also a fat kid but he’s just fat; he gets no backstory.
As bad as all that sounds? It's worse than that.
When Henry Chen (Yen) first shows up in class, none of the kids pay attention. So he pays attention to them. Individually, he asks after their interests. They don’t care. To be honest, they seemed more spoiled than underprivileged. 他们不是乖孩子。 So he activates the fire-safety sprinklers, dousing them all, while he smiles, self-satisfied, beneath an umbrella.
The next day they try to get him back with the water-bucket-over-the-doorway trick. It’s like they’re the Katzenjammer kids. And of course it doesn’t work. He kicks the bucket across the room, dousing them all in the process. They’re amazed but not particuarly curious. They should be saying “Wow. Who the fuck is this guy?” But no.
Oh, then he solves all of their problems. All of them. Like that.
He gets the Pakistani kid up on stage. He gets the girl to race go-karts with her dad; and when she crashes, Dad, thinking she’s dead, breaks down, sobbing, saying how much he always loved her, and she overhears. 当然。The most clichéd problem and insulting resolution is the alcoholic dad. He comes homes from what little work he does and demands the kids buy him booze. Then one day Mr. Chen sends the class on a field trip to a rehab center. And guess who’s speaking? Dad! Not sure when he decided to give up drink—the night before?—and if this is what the Chinese do instead of AA meetings. Is it supposed to help addicts? Bare your soul to some high school kids who don’t know shit. What step is that—lucky 13th?
The gang kid story is the most convoluted. He lives in a shack with his sweet, obtuse grandma who sells things on the streets. When he steals the gold lighter of a gang boss (Yu Kang), he’s beaten up and then forced to join the gang. His first test? To drug an ultimate fighter who refuses to take a fall for the money. But the kid isn’t sly about it, the fighter’s manager catches him in the act, and all of them force the kid to drink a lot of water (????), and then shove him in a locker. They’re high-fiving each other in the loutish way of foreign villains in Hong Kong movies when Chen shows up, figures everything out, and takes them all on. He’s defeating 5, 10 of them, including eventually an ultimate fighting champion, and when he momentarily loses the upper hand, they do that loutish high-five thing again. Really? As with the kids, none of them wonder, “Hey, who the fuck is this guy?” Wouldn’t that be more interesting? That curiosity?
Anyway, Mr. Chen solves the kids’ problems (“The White Shadow” wishes he were this involved in his students' lives) and we’re about 30-45 minutes in. So what’s going to happen now? Well, we finally find out who the fuck this guy is.
The incident with the ultimate fighter leads to a news story, and the journalists do the due diligence the school didn’t. They get Chen’s backstory. Turns out he’s a former U.S. Marine.
Chinese movies have an odd love for the Marines, don’t they? At one point in “Wolf Warrior II,” Leng Feng, its jingoistic hero, admits U.S. Marines may be the best fighting force in the world before adding, “But where are they now?” The implication is that America cuts and runs. The implication here is the exact opposite: America fights forever. Our wars never end. That’s why Chen—in a not-good flashback—leaves the Marines; he gets worn down. Then he walks the earth, as Jules said of Kwai-chang Caine. He tries to find a purpose again. He’s also being followed by an eagle—to which, sure—and he remembers eagles always return home to nest. So that’s what he does. He returns to the secondary school he was kicked out of so he can teach kids like he was back then. It’s “Welcome Back, Kotter” meets “Restrepo.” Except awful.
What are the movie’s other conflicts?
- The school needs to do well in the national exams or fold
- Gangsters want to demolish the school for a development deal
All of this comes to a head on the same day. The gangsters take the students hostage so they can’t attend exams. But Mr. Chen to the rescue. 当然。Turns out the gang leader is the kid Chen beat up back in the day, hurting his hand and making it impossible for him to play the piano. That’s why he's a gangster. As we all know, the fallback position for any classical pianist is a life of crime.
But it all ends well for him and for everyone else onscreen. Just not for me. By the end, I was exhausted by how stupid it was.
Movie Review: The Island (2018)
Four people, all Chinese, watched a screening of “The Island” with me at the Regal Cinemas in downtown Seattle last Thursday. When it was over, I wanted to ask, “什么意思？” What does it mean? What’s that all about?
In the past, if I had such a question after watching a movie from China, it was invariably cultural in nature. This is more. “The Island” is a mix of “Lost,” “Lord of the Flies” and “Swept Away.” It’s the darkest comedy I’ve seen in a while and definitely the darkest comedy I’ve seen out of China.
It starts simple. Ma Jin (Huang Bo, “Lost in Thailand,” directing for the first time) is a down-on-his-luck dude with big dreams and big debts. He pines for ShanShan (Shu Qi of “The Assassin”), his way-too-beautiful co-worker, but she doesn’t give him a second glance. She’s way too beautiful.
One day, during reports that a meteor might strike the earth causing giant tsunamis, his company is on a team-building morale event—one of those “Ride the Ducks” things on the ocean—when Ma learns his latest lottery ticket has come in: $60 million! He can barely contain himself. He’s celebrating, singing karaoke in front of the bus, when they suddenly encounter a giant tsunami. Amid ocean liner wreckage and a frisky giant whale, the bus/boat is tossed and tumbled and winds up broken on the rocky shore of a small, deserted island. Everyone is stunned, horrified, in tears. Particularly Ma. All that money—gone.
Right away we get a bit of “Swept Away” (or is it “Lord of the Flies”?), as the busdriver, Wang (Wang Baoqiang, Tang Ren in the “Detective Chinatown” movies), figures out how to get food, water and shelter, then begins to lord it over everyone. The old boss, Lao Zhang (Yu Hewei), is humiliated.
Ma, still holding onto his winning lottery ticket, which must be redeemed within 90 days, plots to get away. He builds a raft with his agreeable, somewhat dim cousin, Xiao Xing (Zhang Yixing, AKA Lay of the hugely popular boy band EXO), and off they go. They find nothing but a dead polar bear floating in the water. When Ma wakes again he’s back on the island, and is beaten and humiliated by Wang, who, with everyone agreeing that the world has ended, and they’re all that’s left, now considers himself their absolute ruler. That’s the first stage.
The second stage is the comeback of the old boss. Lao Zhang has found an upended cruise ship on the other side of the island, with supplies and fishing nets, and half the group follow him there. His rule is more corporate than primitive. Playing cards become a form of barter used for goods and services—and he has all the cards. Meanwhile, Ma, who has exiled himself with Xing, counts down the days until the lottery ticket is worthless. On that day, fish fall with rain from the skies. Ma considers it a gift from God, a way of making up for the lost lottery ticket. That’s when he plot his own power move—trading the fish to his hungry colleagues for seemingly worthless devices like smartphones. After Xing repairs a generator, they’re able to charge up the phones, and Ma and Xing begin to sell hope in the form of old family images. I.e., As Wang was the primitive leader and Zhang the corporate one, Ma becomes the religious leader. He is revered.
The fact that all of this is happening during the aftermath of a team-building exercise is the film's great unstated joke.
Wo bu xihuan ni
Much of the movie is extreme and over-the-top. Everyone shouts, the people are sheep, security forces come and go.
How “Swept Away” does it get? A bit. A buxom woman becomes willing concubine to Wang, while a professor creates a system to spread out the gene pool by having the few women have babies with as many men as possible. He’s shouted down. Later, the buxom woman jumps rope, or some such, while men ogle her. The Chinese today are less like Italians in the 1970s, than Brits in the ’60s: cleavage crazy.
I did laugh out loud a few times. Early on, Ma finally comes clean to ShanShan. Back in the office, he was the one who was giving her those secret gifts. “Why didn’t you tell me you liked me?” she asks. There’s a long pause, he hems and haws, and paws at the dirt. Then he finally says it: 我喜欢妳： “I like you.” As he’s barely finishing the sentence, she immediately responds with: 我不喜欢你: “I don’t like you.” It’s click-boom. The timing is as perfect as in a Jackie Chan fight.
Of course, they wind up together, and Ma is happy. So happy that when he, Xing and Wang discover a cruise ship gliding through the water on the other side of the island, lights on, fireworks sparkling—meaning the world has not ended—he conspires with Xing to keep it all quiet. They tell the others Wang went crazy, imagining a ship, and thus when he returns, superexcited about the ship, no one believes him. They chase him and give him a primitive electro-shock treatment.
But Ma’s conscience gets the better of him, particularly after ShanShan talks up how truthful they are with each other. Except by now, his dim cousin, Xing, has learned the cold-blooded lessons of achieving power, plots to talk all of Lao Zhang’s wealth and then leave everyone on the island. So Ma conspires with Wang to light their broken cruise ship on fire as a signal. There’s this great moment when Ma, pursued through the woods, falls off a cliff. And as he’s floating down, he sees their broken ship on fire, and the new cruise ship, seeing this, diverting its course to come rescue them. He smiles. I expected that would be his end. I thought he would be dashed on the rocks. The movie might have been better for it.
Instead, he plunges into deep water, wakes on the shore with ShanShan nearby. Everyone else has been rescued. She stayed behind to find him. Sweet. The camera pulls back and the credits roll.
And that’s when it gets really weird.
Breakup Buddies assemble
During the first credits sequence, we see our company members, our team builders, post-rescue. Their story is now famous, and Zhang has already monetized it by making the island a tourist destination.
Except ... Ma has won the $60 million, Xing is in an asylum, and Ma sees its inmates walking in a circle wearing the same kind of striped clothing they wore on the island. So ... was it all just a fantasy? That would explain the fish from the sky. But if so, whose mind were we stuck in? Xing’s? All of them? And if it didn’t happen, how is Zhang monetizing it?
And then we get a second credit sequence, which, I’ll assume, takes place before anything we’ve watched. It’s Ma and Xing on the metro, dreaming of riches, while a bystander, played Xu Zhenng, Huang’s “Lost in Thailand” and “Breakup Buddies” co-star, listens, rolls his eyes, then makes a disparaging comment about them on his phone. That’s it. It seems to exist for the cameo. It certainly doesn’t clear anything up.
And maybe that’s the point. The Chinese movie title is not the Chinese version of “Island.” It’s《一出好戏》, which translates roughly as “A Good Show” or “A Good Play.” That last character, xi, also means “trick,” so one assumes a pun is involved—implying something fake: jiade. The question remains: Who’s doing the tricking? And on whom?