Enter the Fat Dragon (Wong Jing & Tanigaki Kenji, 2020)

 

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Things have been tough in Hong Kong lately. Months of protests over the lack of democracy and transparency in the Special Administrative Region sparked violent reprisals by police, with fears of the coronavirus outbreak on the Mainland only making things worse. The protests have split the entertainment community, with many stars and other figures, who thanks to the integration of the Hong Kong film industry with the Mainland market are pressured to literally toe the party line, coming out as pro-cop and anti-protestor. Even as likable a figure as Donnie Yen is not immune from the controversy, as some recent pro-Beijing comments inspired HK protestors to boycott his Christmas film, Ip Man 4. I don’t know if anyone is planning to boycott Enter the Fat Dragon as well, its Mainland release was cancelled because of the virus, though apparently it was a hit in Singapore over Lunar New Year. But those hoping for Yen to pivot to a more Hong Kong specific message, as opposed to the PRC-friendly pan-Chineseness of Ip Man 4 are going to be disappointed. Not really for any political reason, outside of a generic “all Japanese people are yakuza” vibe, there isn’t a political message to be found in it, but nor is there any distinct Hong Kongness that you’d find in Donnie Yen and Wong Jing movies of old.

Bearing absolutely no relation to the 1978 Sammo Hung classic of the same name, Donnie stars as a hero cop who is constantly breaking stuff with his badassery. He smashes cars, buses, people, a police headquarters, etc, and misses a photography appointment with his finacée, all because he’s so darn dedicated to stopping crimes. So the girlfriend dumps him and he gets transferred to the evidence room, where he eats for six months and doubles his weight (though this appears to cause him no other physical difficulties). Then he gets sent to Japan escorting a witness and gets involved with a ring of yakuza smuggling cocaine inside of fish, leading to more action scenes. It’s Donnie Yen, so these scenes are pretty entertaining, but the whole reason for the movie to exist seems to be that Donnie and Wong think it’d be hilarious to see Donnie in a prosthetic fat suit. Spoiler: it is not.

That’s not to say that the fat suit movie can’t be good. Johnnie To’s Love on a Diet, for example, has the prospect of icons Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng in fat suits as its primary draw, but ends up being an actually pretty moving comedy about friendship and depression. Sammo Hung’s Enter the Fat Dragon too relies for many of its jokes on Sammo’s rotundity, and the incongruity between his size and his speed and agility, but it’s also, as its title indicates, a showcase for Sammo’s uncanny Bruce Lee impression, as well as being the kind of low-budget, independent street-level contemporary genre film that would be a hallmark of the Hong Kong New Wave. That Enter the Fat Dragon was grimy; it had the feel of a bunch of people coming together to make a movie just for the hell of it, to show off what they could do. There’s a similar anarchic quality in Wong Jing’s best work: the freest man in 1980s and 90s Hong Kong, he would throw together movie stars and special effects and lowest common denominator slapstick and puns and highly dangerous action sequences all without the slightest regard for plot coherence or moral sensibility. At its best, it was glorious.

But that was all a long time ago. In recent years Wong has been cashing checks with Chow Yun-fat in the From Vegas to Macau series (a pale reminder of the greatness that was his God of Gamblers films) and making silly, overblown gangster pictures like the Chasing the Dragon movies. Enter the Fat Dragon, one would think, would be an opportunity for Wong to indulge his crude side, maybe even out-joking the occasionally funny Fat Buddies, a modest hit from 2018. But alas, it seems that in his advanced age, Wong had no chance of withstanding the sheer, wholesome niceness of Donnie Yen.

In this movie whose entire premise is “Donnie Yen in a fat-suit” there’s nary a fat joke. Hardly a moment of crudeness or poor taste. Instead we get a story about how Donnie is just so great that he drives everyone around him nuts. Not because he’s actually annoying or anything, but because everyone else is too selfish to realize just how unselfish Donnie really is. It makes the Razor’s Edge-lite can-do optimism of his Big Brother seem downright edgy by comparison. The supporting cast is occasionally fun, with Wong himself playing the even fatter sidekick Donnie finds in Japan, and flashbacks to earlier Yen pictures Flash Point and SPL are almost inspired, though the jokes don’t really land. But the fights are the only thing memorable about it: leaps around a Japanese street set recall last years’ Master Z and a finale in a tall tower is a fun fight marred by a nonsensical bit with a helicopter (why is the charmingly silly police translator played by Jessica Jann piloting the helicopter? Who knows, it’s Wong Jing!). Wong as the sidekick doesn’t get to do much, and his one set-piece, when his character accidentally ingests a bunch of cocaine and drives a forklift around like a maniac doesn’t make any sense. He doesn’t act at all like a person high on coke. Now, I can believe that Donnie Yen has never done a drug in his life, but there’s no way Wong Jing isn’t intimately familiar with the physiological effects of cocaine on the human mind and body.

Because of the coronavirus, Lunar New Year movie season, traditionally the biggest and most crowd-pleasing time of year in the Chinese cinema calendar got cancelled. I’m not sure if Enter the Fat Dragon counts as a New Year movie (as best as I can tell it was originally scheduled for a Valentine’s Day release in China, but that may have simply been an earlier rescheduling), but so far in the US at least, it’s all we’ve got. Hopefully there are better times and movies ahead.

Big Brother (Kam Ka-wai, 2018)

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Into the hallowed tradition of high school movies wherein juvenile delinquents are straightened out by an unconventional teacher steps none other than Donnie Yen, his furious fists solemnly taking up the mantle of Blackboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver, and Dangerous Minds. It’s clearly a project that means something to Donnie, built around his persona as a deeply felt act of giving back to his community, which is why it hurts so much to say that it is the corniest movie I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

Donnie drops into a high school teetering on the edge of closure. Its graduates haven’t been going to college and local developers are eager to seize the land, both of which would be interesting social problems were they to be explored at all, in particular the complicity between developers, local gangsters and the local school board. Instead we’re introduced to five kids, four boys and a girl, each of whom is failing at school. Donnie, with his bright smile and wacky methods (he truly does break all the rules) spends the first half of the movie getting to know each kid in turn and solving their problem for them. One boy, whose family emigrated to Hong Kong three generations ago, wants to be a singer but suffers from stage fright caused by years of discrimination. Donnie helps him by just having him sing in public, which solves racism. The girl wants to be a race car driver but her dad thinks she’s worthless, because she’s a girl. And so Donnie reunites them by having them race minicars through the streets of Hong Kong (Donnie alone does not wear a helmet). This solves sexism. And so on to cure alcoholism, poverty, gangsterism and study-drug addiction.

In the second half of the film comes Donnie’s inevitable downfall, with first a brawl in a locker room before a big MMA match, and then when a student falls victim to a tragic plotline from Dead Poets Society. There’s a showdown with a gang and a last-minute race to take a standardized test. It’s all well-meaning and extremely shallow, with no understanding of or interest in either the institutional problems of the education system, the social environment of underprivilleged students, or any idea of what real reform would look like. Donnie’s solution is basically that everyone just needs to communicate better and try harder.

Coming on the heels of Weeds on Fire, which was similarly plagued with cliché but at least had a strong sense of place, or Bad Genius, which managed to both seriously explore the real class conflicts at work in contemporary high schools while also being a first-rate thriller, let alone an incendiary masterpiece like Ringo Lam’s now 30 year old School on FireBig Brother is at best a hollow gesture, of interest mostly for its star’s performance, and what it tells us about how he regards himself. In the middle of the film is a flashback montage showing how Donnie ended up at this school, taking him from his delinquent days through moving to America, joining the Marines and seeing combat in the Middle East. The horrors of war lead him on a further montage of world travel, discovering humanity to the plaintive sounds of a James Blunt tune. The result of his enlightening journey is his commitment to giving back to his community, which is surely a noble impulse. But it’s one that requires more than this movie to fulfill. But at least it makes me want to see Donnie remake of The Razor’s Edge.

Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 2015) and Monster Hunt (Raman Hui, 2015)

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The disaporic film program at the AMC Pacific Place this week features two of the hottest Chinese-language films of the past year: the latest in Donnie Yen’s series about Wing Chun Master Ip Man and the CGI monster-wuxia that took the Chinese box office by storm last summer, breaking records on its way to becoming the highest-grossing local film in the Mainland’s history. The two films represent state of the art variations on the two oldest forms of the Chinese martial arts film, kung fu and wuxia tricked out with digital manipulations and effects, packed with enough celebrity cameos and show-stopping stunts to make even the most generic or implausible story a lot of fun.

Continue reading Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 2015) and Monster Hunt (Raman Hui, 2015)”