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.

Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (Wong Jing & Jason Kwan, 2019)

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Don’t let the title fool you: in fine Hong Kong tradition Chasing the Dragon II has no relation whatsoever to Chasing the Dragon, a 1970s-set crime epic starring Donnie Yen and Andy Lau that came out a couple of years ago. The only thing the two movies have in common is that they’re crime films and that Wong Jing and Jason Kwan (as cinematographer and co-director) are to blame for them. Wild Wild Bunch is set on the eve of the Handover, in 1996, as Louis Koo is sent undercover as a bomb-maker to ensnare kidnapping kingpin The Other Tony Leung. He’s a Hong Kong cop, working in cooperation with the Mainland police, to catch badguys in Macao. Wong Jing has for forty years now made a career out of pandering to the basest pleasures of the genre film fan. He’s the most prolific bottom-feeder in Hong Kong, incorrigible master of cheap, tasteless sensationalist cinema. His comedies are silly and crude, his action films bloody and bombastic. Now finding himself in a new socio-political environment, he seems to be doing his best (such as that is) to appeal to a whole new audience: the Chinese security state.

In broad outlines, the plot of Wild Wild Bunch makes sense: undercover cop keeps getting trapped in suspenseful situations, including bomb diffusing and car chases. And certain moments do stand out: Wong and Kwan have a knack for the hyperbolic image (one of a bad guy dying in a car, metal rod jammed though his head, futilely grasping at a $1,000 bill on the other side of the windshield, is something I haven’t seen before), but almost every scene in the film if looked at with even minimal scrutiny reveals itself to be utter nonsense. My favorite: PRC cops set up a roadblock for escaping bad guys on the wrong side of an intersection, allowing the crooks to simply make a left turn to avoid them. This is the kind of joyous laziness we’ve all come to expect and, if not exactly love, then at least tolerate out of Wong Jing.

In the film’s final moments, spoilers ahead here, though God knows how anyone could spoil a Wong Jing movie, Koo leads Leung across the border, into the arms of the Mainland military, which, despite their ineffectuality at blocking roads, is otherwise vast, powerful and ruthless. This could easily be read as a paean to the PRC’s no-nonsense efficiency (as well as their habit of extraditing people from supposedly autonomous jurisdictions), but there might be something else going on. Because, for all his loucheness, Wong has always been just a bit more clever than he appears. It’s not hard to project Wong himself (and thus the old, weird Hong Kong) onto Tony Leung’s character, a loud, cruel man of greed and familial loyalty, dressed in white, throwing tattered bills in the air in a gesture of joyous release as he raises his arms in surrender to the Mainland cops. The film fades to black and then returns, and instead of the final credits we get a brief series of images scored to what passes these days for Chinese rock music. Leung is escorted out of his prison cell, while we see images of his past, open skies and roller coaster rides, he is taken to the side of a dusty road and executed. And then the credits roll.

From Vegas to Macau III (Wong Jing, 2016)

Relentless director Wong Jing’s latest farce has less of a plot than either of the first two films in the series, and is even less tethered to reality, in action, story, setting or character. It’s a bunch of shiny effects thrown at aged stars of the 90s, old movie and TV references (Chow Yun-fat spends awhile thinking he’s in Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, a ping-pong match with Jacky Cheung calling back to Johnnie To’s The Eighth Happiness, a little joke about Nick Cheung’s award-winning performance in Unbeatable, a whole sequence set in a prison with leftover costumes from Prison on Fire, even the central romance is Jacky Cheung’s unrequited love for Carina Lau, ala Days of Being Wild, etc etc*).

Of course the whole thing is a riff on the God of Gamblers series, with Chow playing a dual role as the original character and this newer farcical incarnation, kind of as if his amnesia-induced split personalities in that first film had developed into two separate realities. Andy Lau unites them (as he did the original series and Steven Chow’s parody of it), reprising his role as the Knight of Gamblers, but his performance bears no relation to that original character: he’s merely a vehicle for dumb slapstick jokes (a literal pie in the face, peeing baby robots) and inside jokes about Lau’s own career. It’s a movie that breaks into a song or an extended effects-driven bit of action, or a series of dumb mostly unfunny jokes at any opportunity. But there’s something liberating about Wong’s indifference to normalcy.

*Movie loses a half a star because the two dying robots didn’t crawl past each other like at the end of The Killer.