It’s been a long time since I had a look at probably the only existing mainstay of modern Hong Kong Cinema, the Lunar New Year Comedy. You know, the low budget movie that stars just about everyone, with a scatter-shot approach to casting and humour. Moreover, the comedy often simply doesn’t work for us Westerners. So, it was rather intriguing when I saw this one was based on a most unexpected source – J. B. Priestly’s class-based stage play “An Inspector Calls”. Seems an odd choice, but let’s have a little look to see what has been produced.
Co-directed by Raymond Wong and Herman Yau, “An Inspector Calls” introduced us to the Kau family. Ostensibly a rich family, we learn quite early on that they are actually bankrupt. This hasn’t stopped Mr and Mrs Kau (Eric Tsang and Teresa Mo) holding an extravagant engagement party for their pretty young daughter Sherry (Karena Ng). Preparations are interrupted though when Inspector Karl (Louis Koo) forces his way into the picture, accusing Mr Kau of being responsible for the suicide of a young girl (Chrissie Chau). It doesn’t stop there, as it seems all members of the family, including their layabout son Tim (Gordon Lam), Sherry’s fiance Johnny (Hans Zhang) and Tim’s girlfriend Yvonne (Ada Liu Yan) have all had interactions of a negative nature with this girl, albeit in different circumstances, and with her having taken on different names.
First up, we have to talk about the source material. The original story is a pretty dark and damning indictment of early 20th Century English class disparity, about how the lower classes are abused and exploited by the middle and upper classes. The decision to re-purpose this as a comic endeavor (and not a particularly dark one at that) doesn’t quite work. The film does stick fairly closely to the original plot, but tends to soften a number of the story-lines (Tim’s and Johnny’s are especially given a far less damning touch), which is at odds with a story where a pregnant young girl has committed a somewhat painful suicide. It is this disconnect which troubles me the most.
On the other hand, it takes the stage-play concept and runs with it. The sets are wonderful, full of colour and imagination. I have rarely scene an Asian film that is so smart with the set design when clearly the budget is so low. It doesn’t try to do anything clever with structure or flow, it allows the story to unfold as a series of mini-stories, and is all the better for keeping it that way.
Performances are the film’s strength and weakness. Tsang of course is an old hand at the hammy overacting a film of this type needs, and Mo is quite excellent with a slightly more controlled presence. Liu Yan is great as a 2nd Generation girl (when by rights she should be terribly annoying), and I really liked Lam’s man-child. Sadly, Ng and Zhang simply don’t have the presence to carry off their roles, nor are they capable of adding any comedic panache. Surprisingly, Koo also falters here, he shouts and pressures people a lot, but I never really got the sense he was having a huge amount of fun here (and he isn’t helped by the physical jokes given to him with a secreted away diary get boring after the first attempt). The surprise is that I know he is quite capable of comedic roles. Chrissie Chau is hard to judge, as she spends most of the film both silent and having her face obscured, but to be fair, she is able to physically differentiate all the various aspects of her character(s).
It is a Lunar New Year Comedy, so I wasn’t expecting every moment to be knocked out of the park, so the fact that most of it actually works is a pleasant surprise. Not only that but it manages to keep the visual energy going throughout the sub-90 minute running time (it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome), and actually is at its strongest in the final sequence, the actual party itself. Only then do we get flooded with guest appearances. And whilst seeing Dada Chan mock herself is par for the course for this kind of film, the quadruple role for Donnie Chen is one of the funniest things I have seen for a long time. It is utterly unexpected, and on another site would be worth an extra star in the final rating.
I am going to give this one Recommended though. It is very well made, and there are enough good performances and decent jokes to make it a decent watch. It is just a shame it is so fundamentally flawed in concept.