I'd barely heard a thing about this movie, but that's because I'm not its target audience. This is an all-Astro production - director Chiu Keng Guan is an Astro business manager (who also went to Beijing Film Academy), and the cast is largely made up of MyFM radio announcers and Wah Lai Toi and AEC personalities. And it seems it has been getting a fair bit of promotion on both channels, so much so that it was a full house at my screening. Now, I not only don't watch either channel, I'm pretty much a banana - yellow on the outside, white on the inside. My Cantonese is horrendous, my Mandarin even worse, and since this is a Chinese-language film - with no English subtitles summore - this is not a movie made for me.
But I enjoyed it just the same - because it's so much fun.
Ah Beng (Jack Lim) has lost his job, and is constantly belittled by his conceited neighbours. Ah Huat (Jason Yeoh) ekes a living selling char kuey teow and pines after his ex-girlfriend Mindy (Siow Hui Mei). Ah Rain (Royce Tan) can't keep up the rent on his photography studio. These three losers answer a job ad that takes them to the sleepy village of Beserah, Kuantan that has its own problems: Pakcik (Siow Ho Phiew), the sole living practitioner of the "woohoo", or tiger dance, is too old to fulfill the traditional once-every-60-years performance. With the promise of a generous paycheck by Pakcik's granddaughter Ah Lian (Chen Keat Yoke), the three join the tiger dance troupe along with kungfu enthusiast Bobby (Bernard Hiew) and village chief's son Alan (Gan Jiang Han). They begin their training and befriend the rest of Beserah's residents - Ah Lian's kid brother Durian Head, the village chief, local tour guide Ah Shui (Freddie Ng), his wife (Vivian Tok) and their four daughters - but little do they know that Ah Lian doesn't actually have any money to pay them.
There appears to be some confusion over the title of this movie - it's listed as Woohoo! in some places, and as Tiger Woohoo! in others. Since "woohoo" literally means "tiger dance" in Chinese, I'm going with the less redundant one. This is pitched as a home-grown Lunar New Year comedy, which apparently has its own term in Chinese: "hor sui pin". I'm not sure if that's an actual genre, but according to LoveHKFilm, the CNY period always gets a Hong Kong movie release that's a purely nonsensical, utterly silly comedy featuring big stars acting goofy. Which, yeah, I've seen a couple of those. Woohoo! has stars (from Astro), they act goofy and silly, and it's so genial and good-natured that you'd have to be a racist ultra-Melayu (heh heh) not to enjoy it.
The plot is your standard losers-make-good story, which is always lots of fun if done well. It's certainly one that Stephen Chow Sing Chi has turned to in many of his films, and this one stands up quite well to those. (Yes, that is high praise.) It cannot match his storytelling genius, but it does have an ensemble of incredibly likable characters just like Chow often does. It's also pretty darn funny, with most of its dialogue in that uniquely Malaysian mix of Mandarin, Cantonese, what sounds like Hokkien but could very well be Teochew or Hakka, and even a BM word or two thrown in. And yes, every character is loads of fun, even in an overstuffed cast like this. Alan and Bobby are somewhat unnecessary, serving only to fill up the five-man tiger dance troupe out of authenticity. And of the three newcomers to the village, Ah Rain is the least developed. But Chiu and his writer Lee Eng Keong take pains to craft personalities for each of them, which is most welcome.
And they wouldn't be so likable if they weren't backed up by some terrific actors. Now, mind you, none of the performances are particularly subtle or nuanced. But all that's demanded of them is to portray simple characters effectively, and they all pull it off. Take real-life lion dance sifu Siow Ho Phiew; he's no thespian, but his character is an effective stand-in for the theme of preserving an ancient traditional art. Which red-blooded Chinese wouldn't feel for him? Chen Keat Yoke stands out as the tough, pragmatic Ah Lian who runs her family's salted fish business, and who's more than a match for a bunch of "KL people". Jason Yeoh is also impressive as the lovable dimwit sadsack Ah Huat. Royce Tan hams it up as the effeminate Rain, and I wouldn't believe you if you told me he wasn't gay in real life. Jack Lim gets top billing, and by some miracle his affectedly high-pitched voice did not annoy me. Even a money-minded shrew like Mindy is appealingly portrayed by Siow Hui Mei. (Oh, and Gan Mei Yan must be pretty famous, 'cos she gets star billing for what's essentially a cameo role. She's funny too.)
Okay, this movie isn't perfect. The revelation of Ah Lian's deception is a big dramatic complication that's satisfyingly resolved, and that's right about when the climactic performance of our lovable woohoo exponents should be coming up. But then the troupe suffers another setback, and the film really begins to drag around that point. I've seen this film's running time indicated as 1 hour and 35 minutes, and I find it hard to believe it's so short - pacing really isn't its strong point, its plot tends to meander, and its massive ensemble can get unwieldy. But you know what is its strong point? Lee Eng Keong's writing. Because that second setback leads to another big dramatic scene involving Mrs. Shui and her kids, and Lee crafts that scene with effective poignancy without ever falling back on on-the-nose dialogue. Also, it gives Vivian Tok more screentime, and she's loads of fun.
And then there's the gorgeous scenery of Beserah, one of those charmingly quaint old-fashioned Malaysian Chinese towns. And there's Chiu's Beijing Film Academy-trained direction, which is unshowy but always effective. All this plus Lee's script make it a New Year comedy that's fun, funny, heartwarming, and charming as all hell. This was a real pleasant surprise for me, considering I'd never heard of any of these people before, or even this film. But I liked them all, a lot. I want to see more from Chiu, and Lee, and these actors. I hear that Woohoo! will only play for two weeks before making way for the big CNY releases from Hong Kong, which is a crying shame - it won't even be showing during the festive season for which it was made. So please, go watch this if you're Chinese-educated, if you watch Astro's Chinese channels and listen to MyFM, or if you know who these actors are. I'm not and I don't, and I still liked it.
NEXT REVIEW: Merantau Warrior
Expectations: another Ong Bak?