I will admit to not having been in a big hurry to see this film, as I had recently watched Lost in Thailand, the second entry in this loosely-connected series. I can only describe that feature as being interminably long and totally unfunny — not good descriptions for a comedy. Also, I wasn’t a fan of mainland star and director Xu Zheng, but I do like Zhao Wei and her recent films have been so varied (Dearest, Hollywood Adventures) and so good.
Well, was I in for a surprise. Lost in Hong Kong is the funniest movie I’ve seen this year and light years away from the torturous Lost in Thailand. This new release and the recent family oriented CGI-fantasy pic Monster Hunt are near perfect examples of how far the Mandarin-language film industry has progressed in such a short time. Crowd-pleasing genre films of this high standard are already giving Hollywood releases much-needed competition in Asia.
With a larger budget and one of the world’s most photogenic cities as a backdrop, director Xu Zheng has produced a colorful splash of a movie, with two central characters who are so enjoyably flawed that any audience will find it difficult to resist their gormless charm. And nothing in Hong Kong is going to get in the way of these self-obsessed dreamers and fantasists.
The film opens in the early 90s at a Chinese university where Xu Lai (Xu Zheng) meets Yang Yi (Du Juan), both are studying an art course. They are attracted to each other and a protracted romance begins, one which unfortunately develops a major intimacy problem. Later Yang Yi wins a scholarship to study in Hong Kong. Xu is heartbroken by their parting, and soon becomes the object of Cai Bo’s (Zhao Wei) attention, a pushy but good-natured fellow student. They eventually marry and Xu forgoes a career as an artist, instead starting work at the Cai family lingerie business where he becomes an expert in designing brassieres.
Twenty years later, Xu Lai is working eighteen-hour days to support the individual lifestyles of his lazy, extended family. His wife’s only need is to have a child — a problem which simmers between Xu and Bo. Out of the blue, Xu receives an invitation to attend an art exhibition in Hong Kong being held by the now internationally famous painter, Yang Yi. Amidst text messages and phone calls between each other, Xu begins to fantasize about the possibility of a new life with his first love.
A family trip to Hong Kong provides the opportunity for Xu to meet Yang Yi at the gallery. Xu’s daily existence now revolves around seeing Yang Yi on that particular afternoon in Hong Kong. With every moment planned and rehearsed, Xu is finally ready for the big day. Enter his brother-in-law Cai Lala (Bao Bei Er), a monumental pain-in-the-butt who fancies himself as a documentary film-maker with a DV camera. He is currently filming the family holiday and is anything but a fly on the wall director, more like an in-your-face waste of space. To shut him up, Xu agrees to do a brief on-camera interview with this wannabe Sino Flaherty. Lala may be clueless but he does possess a rat cunning and he suspects his brother-in-law has a dirty little secret he is hiding from the family. What a doco this would make! From that moment Lala decides to stick like glue to Xu and to expose his dark secret. The humour of this movie is now all about Xu trying to lose Lala so he can meet Yang Yi. Throw in a pair of dodgy Canto cops (Sam Lee and Eric Kot), and the streets, apartment blocks, shopping malls and freeways of Hong Kong become collateral damage in Xu’s dogged attempts to reach the opening of an art exhibition on Hong Kong Island.
When the brothers-in-law go searching for a locksmith in sleazy Mongkok (Don’t ask!), what follows is fifteen minutes of the funniest physical comedy put on film for a very long time. Xu’s inadvertent genius for becoming chained to inanimate objects reaches new heights when he’s stuck precariously on a narrow window ledge whilst holding a kitchen sink. Watch HK star Lam Suet (Drug War) go ballistic when Lala wreaks havoc on a family funeral which sees the dead man’s ashes become airborne as they are mixed into the air conditioning system.
In hindsight, it was a brilliant move to replace Wang Bao Qiang — the co-star of the earlier movies — with Bao Bei Er. He has such an expressive face and an ultra-shrill voice that with too much exposure would lead to dental issues. And just when it looks like there might be a rapprochement between Xu and Lala, you can rely on the latter getting his wires crossed and pursuing his “no good” relative with an increased vigour.
Xu Zheng (also one of the writers) really knows his character in this film and portrays this downtrodden wage slave as someone the viewer can readily identify with. No matter how humiliated he’s been, the audience has a sneaking admiration for a person who has dared to follow his dream — no matter how implausible.
Zhao Wei receives a star billing but her role actually only bookends the narrative. She’s quite watchable in what she does but don’t expect to see anything of the calibre of her work in the recent mainland drama, Dearest.
Lost in Hong Kong has some nostalgic references to Hong Kong pop culture of the 1980s and 90s, mainly Wong Kar-Wai films, Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story, Leslie Cheung ballads and a theme song from Beijing diva Faye Wong. On a much lesser nostalgic note, director Xu seemingly laments the current state of Cantonese cinema with a string of gratuitous references to the pugnacious Hong Kong hack, Wong Jing (From Vegas to Macau). Asian cinema buffs might recognise the occasional use of the iconic theme music from the Chow Yun-Fat / John Woo gangster pic, A Better Tomorrow. In a short linking sequence we watch a red BMW coupe speeding through the night on a neon-lit ribbon of freeway with the A Better Tomorrow theme filling the cinema. For some, this passage of film will resonate on a most enjoyable level.
The movie ultimately promotes the conservative values of family sanctity over personal choice or even happiness — but not before delivering a scene where Xu Lai unloads twenty-plus years of pent-up frustration on his layabout family. It’s a priceless verbal deluge and had the audience I was with cheering him on.
My only real criticism of Lost in Hong Kong is the tower block finale which — apart from not being very original — wears out its welcome as contrived subplots develop serious credibility problems. At one instance, Lala yells at the assembled cast “Get on with it!” I couldn’t have agreed more. But minor faults aside, Lost in Hong Kong is highly recommended and it thoroughly deserves every yuan / dollar it has made and will go on to make.