Chinese Odyssey 2002

Though this Chinese New Year’s film may have a few patchy spots crisscrossing its surface like a beat up old childhood stuffed teddy bear, there is something about this film that is quite lovable and in need of a hug. There is really not a lot that could be considered innovative here – it follows New Year film conventions to a large degree – but it is packaged in such a charming menagerie of cross-dressing, genre confusion, class confusion, songs, parodies, martial arts and silliness that it feels like meeting an old friend that you have missed. Most of the humor is far from fall down funny, but it is genial and affectionate and becomes more of a smile on your face mood piece as it goes along.
Back in 1993 Jeff Lau as director and Wong Kar-wai as producer collaborated on the notoriously zany Eagle Shooting Heroes that skewered the martial arts flying fantasy films that were so popular at the time. In Chinese Odyssey 2002 they once again team up to create a film that to some degree resembles their previous effort as it too lovingly mocks this genre as well as taking the opportunity for numerous potshots at some of Wong Kar-wai’s own films (Ashes of Time, Chungking Express). Unlike Eagle though in which frantic motion often seemed to be a substitute for a story, this is a much gentler and leisurely film in which quirky romance eventually pushes itself to the foreground and the film becomes surprisingly sentimental and touching by the end.
Tinged with a strong dose of nostalgia for the films of the early 90’s this almost feels like He’s the Man, She’s the Woman meets Ashes of Time. In fact the near final line of the film brings this home as Tony Leung Chiu-wai says “It doesn’t matter who's the man and who's the woman” as he sits contemplating under a blossom tree. His character could almost be that of the one in Ashes if he had taken a different road and reached a different fate – if instead of pining for his lost love Peach Blossom, he finds an unexpected fairy tale love that leads him far away from that fateful day in Ashes of Time. Not that this film in any way equals either of those two classic films – it feels thrown together quite quickly – and it is in no way serious. Think of Chang Chen, the roving romantic bandit of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon spending much of this film in an Afro for some reason or Tony and Faye Wong buried up to their heads in mud as chickens and ducks swarm about them or Vicky Zhao contentedly lying in bed with the wide-eyed surprised Faye Wong. It is a silly farce that manages to quietly burrow its way under your skin.
Tony is a swordsman (Bully the Kid!) and ruffian who turned rotten (but not really too rotten!) when he was spurned by his girlfriend years before. He returns to his small village to visit his sister, Vicky, where he discovers that his reputation is keeping the men away and making his sister an old maid. He decides to find her a husband and thinks he has found the perfect man when a stranger walks into town. Dressed in male clothing, Faye is actually a royal princess who has escaped from the palace and the Empress (Rebecca Pan) in a bid for freedom. Tony tries to push Faye on his sister and all three spend a night gaily cross-dressing (Faye as a woman) and end up in bed together. As in most of these cross-gender type films, one has to suspend loads of belief that Tony and Vicky would take Faye as a man!
Faye’s royal brother (Chang Chen) comes looking for her but meets Vicky instead and decides he would rather be Superfly than the next Emperor and hangs around until mother loses patience and sends the soldiers to bring her wayward children home. In the meantime Tony and Faye fall in love (he fears he is gay of course), get stuck in mud and perform a song and dance number about chopsticks. Into this mix are bits from Roy Cheung as a kung fu villain looking for revenge, Athena Chu as a mysterious fortuneteller and possibly a rabbit and Eric Kot in a small cameo as a smug little twit.
I thought it all worked wonderfully well, but I wonder if it is the type of film that might not have wide appeal. It does have its weaknesses – many of the jokes fall very flat, Faye seems to go through much of it as if she is surprised to be back with her Chungking partner and is wondering why she is wearing this goofy hat throughout (but still is quite a pleasure to watch for me) and the script could have used a bit of tightening. I showed it to three friends and they didn’t think much of it at all much to my surprise. For me though it is almost a flashback to the Hong Kong comedy cinema of a decade ago that I rather miss.

My rating for this film: 8.0