Petaling Street Warriors
I respect the hell out of James Lee. Not just because he makes good movies, but also for his unwavering work ethic; his last film came out just five months ago, and his latest one is a period kungfu comedy, which certainly isn't a simple production. The guy just never stops working, even when his films are box-office disappointments - or even when they're banned by our quintessential Censorship Board. But if he's at all discouraged by all this, he shows no sign of it; in fact, he has another film in the works, another martial arts action film called The Collector. But first, Petaling Street Warriors - a local Chinese-language movie that's clearly after the same Malaysian Chinese audience that flocked to Nasi Lemak 2.0 and Great Day.
Which I very much hope it managed to capture, because it thoroughly deserves to.
Shi Duyao (Mark Lee) and Zhung Lichun (Yeo Yann Yann) are a married couple selling Hokkien mee at their stall in Petaling Street, circa 1908. Along with their fellow traders Liu Kun (Namewee) and Weisheng (Sunny Pang), they have occasional run-ins with the local gang bosses (John Cheng and Brandon Yuen) - and Duyao can't help tagging after his good-for-nothing friends Yong Kok (Alvin Wong) and Rajoo (Ramasundran Rengan) - but on the whole, he and Lichun are happy together. But in fact, Duyao is the descendant of the last Chinese emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who fled to Southeast Asia 500 years ago after being overthrown by the Qing - and brought with him the vast treasures of his kingdom. That treasure is now being sought by several parties: a mysterious femme fatale named Xiaoju (Chris Tong), an eunuch of the Qing government (Frederick Lee), and the local British constabulary captain (Nick Dorian). All of whom converge on Petaling Street and Duyao, who - unbeknownst to him all this while - is under the sworn protection of this own wife, Liu Kun and Weisheng.
So this movie has been earning raves from a bunch of Hong Kong filmmaking figures, most of which amounts to saying it's on par with the quality of Hong Kong films. Which struck me as pure PR fluff the first time I heard it, that is until I watched the movie. They're right; Petaling Street Warriors is a period kungfu comedy in the classic Stephen Chow mou lei tao mould, and it's pretty damn good by the standards of that genre. It's funny as hell, and maintains a dizzying comic momentum in which, even when a joke falls flat, there's always another one right on its heels. The cast collectively possess a ramshackle charm that will win no acting awards, but are supremely likable and fun to watch. And despite first impressions, the storyline is not dumb or shallow; it shows a sly intelligence in many parts, and cannily presses all the right "Chinese pride" buttons. (As opposed to something like Ip Man 2, which presses all the wrong ones.)
Yeah, you heard me - Petaling Street Warriors is a smart film, something its detractors clearly fail to recognise. The plot tends to ramble off on funny-but-weird tangents - e.g. an interlude involving Duyao, Yong Kok and Rajoo taking lessons from a bogus kungfu master (Chua Bee Seong) - but it wraps up all its plot threads satisfyingly and makes good use of every member of its large cast. A lot of it is reminiscent of Chow Sing Chi's Kung Fu Hustle - the secret kung fu badasses masquerading as ordinary working-class joes, the unlikely doofus who only needs to "unblock his chi" to become an unbeatable kung fu master - but the parts of its plot that are original unfold in clever and surprising ways. And Lee (with his co-director Sampson Yuen) is clearly taking a page out of Namewee's book, with several deliciously satirical in-jokes that poke fun at contemporary issues; I was particularly thrilled by one bit where the British captain arrests Duyao and Liu Kun "for their own protection."
The only parts of this movie that don't quite work are the martial arts action scenes. It boasts Hong Kong stunt director Ma Yuk-sing on kungfu choreography, but the fight scenes are filmed in that typical blend of tight close-ups and quick-cutting designed to hide its performers' lack of skill. Which, frankly, I'm willing to forgive. Mark Lee, Namewee, Yeo Yann Yann, Chris Tong et al are clearly not trained martial artists and aren't at all convincing as such, but neither do they embarrasss themselves and the movie they're in either. (For an example of the latter, see Misteri Jalan Lama.) But aside from that, its production values are solid, with Ipoh subbing in for turn-of-the-century Petaling Street; the period details aren't as flawlessly recreated as the average modern Hong Kong-China production, but it doesn't break suspension of disbelief either. (Except when it wants to get anachronistic, that is.)
Above all, it's funny. It ends on outtakes over the end credits, and it's exactly the kind of movie that ought to - one that's so charming and enjoyable you just want to spend every last second in its company. And a movie that achieves this effect usually has its cast to thank for it, but as I mentioned, their performances aren't exactly masterpieces of comic acting. Yeo Yann Yann seems to be playing a little above the film's broad comedic tone; conversely, Mark Lee mugs a little too much, when his role sometimes calls for more subtlety. Chris Tong is eye candy and little more; Alvin Wong and Ramasundram are bumbling sidekicks and little more; Namewee has nothing to work with other than a (albeit hilarious) speech impediment; Nick Dorian can get a little annoying. But other than Lee and Yeo, none of these characters take up enough screentime to overpower the film. There's always a new scene, a new gag, a new comic setpiece to divert your attention. There are bits with Ho Yuhang and Chew Kin Wah as wannabe gangsters, Henry Thia as a loan shark, and a cross-dressing Jack Neo. And there's even a talking parrot.
And as silly and irreverent as it all is, it never forgets the heart of its story and where to place it. Duyao and Li Chun's love for each other, Duyao coming to terms with his secret heritage, the struggles of the Chinese immigrant community in British-controlled Malaya - they all get enough prominence to end the movie on a greater high than if it were just a load of dumb fun. And yes, there's Chinese pride all over it - a pride in its ancient history, yet also a resolve to seek a new future free of the dictates of that history. After all, this is a film that posits that the last scion of the Ming imperial family is right here in Kuala Lumpur - a good, humble man, who loves his wife, earns an honest living and is grateful for the opportunity. Maybe his grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still with us today. And maybe they're still making a mean plate of Hokkien mee.
NEXT REVIEW: Ombak Rindu
Expectations: so, citer nie pasal gadis kena rogol, pastu kawin perogol dia, pastu happily ever after?