Remember Chinese New Year 2002? I know for some going back two whole years might be a bit of strain but let me help you: an unprecendented three [count 'em!] Chinese New Year comedies came out battling for the top spot. Chinese Odyssey 2002, Marry A Rich Man and Fat Choi Spirit. Although the idea of Tony Leung and Faye Wong being lovers in a period comedy lost in the box office stakes to Andy playing mahjong and Sammi playing gold-digger, in my mind, this film is far superior.
Produced by Jet Tone Pictures [Wong Kar Wai's production company] this is indeed a deceptive film. It sells itself as a comedy but surprises the audience with more emotional depth that one would expect in average drama let alone a Chinese New Year comedy. The production values seems a tad higher than your the usual HK flick with great costumes, cinematography and it made great use of the beautiful Chinese locations. The entire film, be it in the palace or out in the marshland where Tony and Faye gets buried up to their necks in quicksand, is just visual eye-candy.
A prince [Zhang Zhen] and his sister, the princess [Faye Wong] of some distant medieval Chinese dynasty are bored — as is often the case with royalty. They are bored with palace life its boundaries and most of all, from the watchful eye of the queen mother [Wong Kar Wai regular - Rebecca Pan]. They concoct a plan to escape [one of many] — this time the prince imagines the palace guards to be congruous buckets of steamed rice [nice one!] and the princess kicks through the doors like a woman possessed. Obviously the princess manages to escape and the prince gets hauled back into the palace and grilled by his mum like a naughty boy.
The princess, now dressed up as a man, is having a time of her life at a nearby town although not for long. Being an amateur to city life, she falls prey to a pick-pocket and has all her money stolen. She meets Ah-Lung [Tony Leung], the unsavoury town bully, who takes pity on this good looking young man and shares his wine. Over several casks wine, good conversation and jokes, the princess falls in love with him. Trouble is Ah-Lung’s sister, Phoenix [Vicki Zhao], has fallen in love with this handsome young stranger that has wandered into town. About this time, the prince managed to wrangle himself out of the palace on the pretext of finding the princess. He finds Phoenix instead and he falls in love with her pet turtle — well of course he falls in love with Phoenix – just checking.
Although the ol’ gender-bender mistaken identity plot isn’t a necessarily a new one the film plays this card to its advantage. Cue many gags: silly ones one which involves Vicki Zhao brushing Faye Wong’s teeth with her finger [yes, go crazy with those lesbian fantasies, if you must] or heart-warming ones where Ah-Lung and the princess sing a traditional operatic duet for local villagers. The initial silliness makes way for some serious tugging of the heart strings, which creeps up surreptitiously – drawing sympathy from the viewers, but without too much sappiness. Before you know it you’re upset when the princess [Faye Wong] bids her love Ah-Lung goodbye to return to the palace. You’re moved when the prince and Phoenix prove their love by placing their hands in a blinding hot furnace.
That is not to say the second half of the film is a sob-fest, nay on the contrary. There are many warm moments and still many more jokes to come. This is yet another surprise about Chinese Odyssey 2002— that it is able to consistently balance the pathos and the humour throughout the film.
Other delights include Tony Leung in a rare substantial comedy role and Faye Wong in a movie at all. The supporting cast is full of beans, including energetic cameos from Athena Chu, Eric Kot and Roy Cheung. Helmed by Jeff Lau who also directed the very wacky Eagle Shooting Heroes and one of my favourite HK films of all time La Legendary Rose Noire ’92 he makes Chinese Odyssey 2002 not only a very fun experience but a memorable one too.
This is a rare gem, sorta like finding an extra red packet after new year. A really big one.