Ah Beng The Movie: Three Wishes
I enjoyed the last two Astro-produced Chinese-language local movies released during the past two Chinese New Years, but I was doubtful about this one. For one thing, it's not directed by Chiu Keng Guan who did the other two; the second of which was weaker than the first, but at least I have an idea what to expect from a Chiu film. For another... well, just look at that poster. Or its trailer, for that matter. That is a deeply uncool-looking poster, and that is a trailer that says nothing about what the movie is about. It would appear that this movie is trading largely on the appeal of the Ah Beng character - who not only appeared two years ago in Woohoo! but also stars in an eponymous Astro Wah Lai Toi TV series - as well as the channel's entire stable of TV personalities. I liked watching them in Woohoo! and Great Day, but if all they're gonna do here is goof around for 90 minutes, their fans may enjoy that but I doubt I'm gonna.
Fortunately, there's more to the movie than that. But there certainly could've been more more.
In 1975, Ah Loong's (Gan Jiang Han) only New Year's Eve wish is to finally find a job so he can support his wife (Wan Wai Fun) and infant son. Because of his kindness and generosity, the God of Prosperity grants him three wishes - and his first is to see his son as an adult. He is thus transported to New Year's Eve 2012, where his son Ah Beng (Jack Lim) is now a lowly and oft-put-upon security guard - and his wife is now a doddering old woman who doesn't even recognise him, due to his untimely death while Ah Beng was still a baby. But although their means are humble, Ah Beng lives happily with his friends Rain (Royce Tan) and Bobby (Bernard Hiew), and their next-door neighbours, cousins "Vege" Lian (Gan Mei Yan) and "Salted Fish" Lian (Chen Keat Yoke). However, their happiness is threatened when "Salted Fish" Lian contracts a life-threatening disease that will cost a fortune in medical fees.
It was with pleasure that I thought to myself, not long after the movie started, that this appears to be the Malaysian Chinese version of Back to the Future. But only after I came out of the theatre that I realised this is a lot more similar to Frequency, a 2000 Jim-Caviezel-Dennis-Quaid-starring sci-fi drama that really deserves more attention than it got. Rather than a teenager who travels to the past and meets his parents when they were his age, it has a father who gets to meet his son as an adult in the future. In fact, another notable similarity - the father being a chain-smoker in both movies - leads me to believe that Jack Lim, who is credited as producer and for original story and co-screenwriter, has definitely watched Frequency before. Ripoff? Naah. The similarities end there, and the premise still possesses rich veins of drama and pathos yet to be mined.
After all, instead of an action-thriller-drama with a serial killer villain, Ah Beng The Movie: Three Wishes is a broad comedy-drama in the same vein as, well, pretty much every other popular local Chinese film since Woohoo! They love this kind of stuff, and this one pulls it off pretty well; a fair bit better than Great Day, certainly. The jokes are broad and silly, and toward the latter half they give way to melodrama that's even broader and calculated to milk the tearducts. But it works; not because of well-developed characters, or even particularly great acting - the most you can say about the cast is that they're likable - but through the simplicity and familiarity of their stories. The life-threatening illness one is more simple and familiar, but it works because it's Chen Keat Yoke reprising (more or less) her Ah Lian character.
And the time-travel one works because there's just no red-blooded Chinese who could be unmoved by a father willing to sacrifice everything for his son. (Certainly not during the CNY period.) It works well enough that I wish Lim, his co-screenwriter Kenneth Wong, and director Silver had put more thought into it. Both Frequency and Back to the Future were tightly-plotted films, and by that I mean they both paid as much attention to character arcs and emotions as they did to plot mechanics. Here, Ah Beng and Ah Loong are content to just mosey along in modern-day KL, stopping along the way to enter a talent competition (facetiously named Malaysia's Got Challenge - at least I hope it was facetious) to raise money for "Salted Fish" Lian's medical bills, until the climax forces them to make use of the God of Prosperity's other two wishes.
Which means what actually happens most of its running time are aimless gags and comic setpieces featuring a grab bag of cameos by Astro celebrities. I don't recognise any of them (although the audience at my viewing seemed to), so I wasn't as tickled by them as the movie expected me to be. I wish these Astro "hor sui pin"s wouldn't rely on them so much; I wish they'd focus more on honest-to-goodness storytelling, as well as on the characters that are actually relevant to the plot and the actors that are capable of more than just a funny cameo. The aforementioned Chen, who gave the strongest performance in Woohoo!, is pretty much relegated to the background here, and for much of the movie I even thought it took place in some alternate continuity from the earlier film in which her character is not Ah Beng's love interest. (When did she become his neighbour's cousin anyway?)
And to be honest, this kind of thing worries me. Ah Beng The Movie is a good movie, but it is not notably better than Woohoo!, and Great Day was not as good as those two. Two years after audiences had their appetites whetted for local Chinese-language films and it's starting to look like they're spinning their wheels, trading on the familiar formula of Astro celebrity cameos - little different from I Love Hong Kong 2012, the other big CNY movie of the year. I haven't seen that one, nor any of the other Hong Kong "hor sui pin"s of the last several years, but I have my money on Ah Beng The Movie being better than any of them, if only because of the unique local flavour. But c'mon guys, you can do a lot better. Based purely on my observations at the ticket counter, it appears I Love Hong Kong 2012 is the box-office winner of the holiday season - but there's no reason why Lim, Silver, Chiu and the rest of the Astro production team can't beat the Hongkies if they really try.
NEXT REVIEW: Chronicle
Expectations: ooh, looks interesting