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Description: Some humor translates, some doesnt

Peter Nepstad - March 10, 2011 04:34 PM (GMT)
First, for those who haven't seen Jeff Lau's comedy, I highly recommend it, it is very funny and generally speaking very accessible to a western audience, parodying all films that the average western filmgoer with a passing interest in HK cinema is likely to have seen: RED CLIFF, KUNG FU HUSTLE, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, and a few more I won't spoil. Loved the topical humor and a really nice enjoyable cast.

But there's this one scene where Ronald Cheung explains what happened to him to Cao Cao in an exaggerated way. Then Cao Cao says, "you think you're the only one who can tell a wordplay story?" At which point one of his generals repeats the entire performance. It is funny in an absurd sort of way, but I can't help but feel I'm missing a great deal of the humor in this section.

-- Peter

Yi Lee - March 10, 2011 05:09 PM (GMT)
Hey Peter,

I'd wager you were listening to a xiangsheng or "cross-talk" routine. The funniest cinematic cross-talk scenes of recent note would include the bargaining sessions among Jiang Wen, Ge You, and Chow Yun-fat in "Let the Bullets Fly" (2010) and the requisite bit in McDull movies (2001, 2004, 2006, 2009) between Sandra Ng and Anthony Wong elaborating on/arguing over a long list of tongue twisting items.

Here are some links (plus, of course, a ubiquitous wikipedia reference):

Peter Nepstad - March 11, 2011 02:09 AM (GMT)
...just found the scene online, on youtube, not subtitled in English, so you can't see that it isn't particularly funny in English translation. The scene in question begins at 12:20 and ends at 14:10 or so.

Youtube Link

Yi Lee - March 11, 2011 09:25 PM (GMT)
Hey Peter (and everybody else),

I'm going to catch this at an internet cafe or something for dial-up youtube is way too slow. However, three things of note:

1) The subs are not direct captures of the Cantonese dialogue but rather standard Mandarin renderings of Cantonese phrasing. Back in the day HK movies would have used the idiomatic HK character set to transcribe the dialect but now, I suppose for market reasons, producers must try to cater to broader non-local tastes.

2) Despite my love for shanzai and e'gao (kuso) not to speak of moleitau--had some really glowing stuff to say about Ning Caishen's 2011 shanzai moleitau comedy "My Own Swordsman"--Jeff Lau's comedies don't cut it for me anymore. Stephen Chow made them work and Ronald Cheng seems to be a poor substitute even though I've generally liked Cheng for most of his career (remember the airplane histrionics days? Yup, was still a fan even over that.) BTW, what the hell are you doing Lee Lik-Chee as Stephen Chow/the Green Hornet?!

3) That's Betty Sun Li from "Fearless" (2006) as the sword fairy! After seeing Kenny Bee in "Shanghai Blues" (1984) as part of MOIVE CLUB, I actually got ticked off at seeing him so mis-used in a "House of Flying Daggers" (2004)-cum-2008 Olympics opening ceremony(!) spoof. What a waste of two really good actors. I'm not sure if Jeff Lau is capable of writing decent xiangsheng and am going to bet the aforementioned scene with Cao Cao is a po-mo parody of a scene in one of Lau's earlier movies sight unseen.

I kinda want to gouge my eyes out after catching those slow-coming five minutes. Life is too short to watch a Red Cliff parody done by Jeff Lau.

Peter Nepstad - March 14, 2011 02:46 AM (GMT)
Them's fighting words! For myself, I would be more inclined to say life is too short to watch a four hour John Woo movie than to say it is too short to watch its parody (and hey, as it turns out, I've done both and have plenty of life left).

I always have time for a Jeff Lau film, surely he makes the most consistently entertaining comedies in Hong Kong. Just compare with, say, Wong Jing's BEAUTY ON DUTY. Yikes. Or the endless "meet cute" romantic comedies made in every country on the planet, with only slight variations. Do I really need to see Andy Lau remake a Mel Gibson film? Friends, I submit to you that I do not.

Jeff Lau films, on the other hand, are volatile cocktails of wordplay, crude physical humor, romance, slapstick, parody, and tragedy, and are uniquely Hong Kong. KUNGFU CYBORG was much, much more entertaining than it had any right to be (I've seen it several times, once by myself and once with the whole family). A CHINESE TALL STORY actually tells the Monkey King story in a fresh way for a change. CHINESE ODYSSEY 2002 -- now that's how you make a romantic comedy. He makes the kind of films that you can find no where else on the planet but Hong Kong, and as the city's film industry slowly decays and merges into an utterly sanitized, pan-Chinese cinema, I cherish the bits that still remain, no matter how flawed.

-- Peter

Yi Lee - March 14, 2011 05:47 PM (GMT)
Hey Peter (and everyone else),

Finally caught the scene in question. My own reaction is that it's funnier than the other twelve minutes of the clip. Obviously, one's mileage may vary. Here are a few things that were running through my mind whilst everything was going on:

1) I wonder if the repeat is a sly commentary on Cao Cao's recruitment of Zhao Yun/Zilong (see Liu Bei's recruitment of Zhu Geliang/Kong Ming.)

2) I wonder if it's a commentary on Cao Cao's supposed sly intelligence (the term "guicai" comes to mind.) If I could summarise Three Kingdoms in a a few sentences Cao's initial conquests were stacking superior forces against neighbors and then getting them to surrender because of their fear of supposedly insurmountable odds. Flash forward to Red Cliff and afterwards when Cao tries this exact strategy over and over again against Sun Quan and Liu Bei (Liu's earlier losses before this point were before he had established a formidable state/kingdom of his own.) Irrespective of Cao's infamy in ancient Chinese historiography, he was basically a skilled administrator able to supply his armies with weapons and grain. A competent strategist, you'll note the major heroes of the age sided with Liu and Sun instead. Anyway, Cao's general strategy was to build up a large army and send it against a foe, usually causing them to surrender because of the awesome numbers of incoming foes. This doesn't work against Liu and Sun because they are actually pretty good strategists and not bowled over simply because of the large numerical disadvantage.

The story of Three Kingdoms is Cao doing this bit over and over again even though Liu and Sun's distance from Cao's home base prevented Cao's armies from fighting an actual military campaign because supply lines were stretched far too thin to do anything save just show up on Sun and Liu's home turf. Yet Cao Cao keeps doing this over and over and over and over again... it's like the definition of insanity: doing the exact same thing over and over again yet expecting a different result each time.

3) Cao and his nephews were known for being great poets of their age and part of their poesy involved repetition for ironic effect.

4) Based upon the Hard Boiled baby shotgun/Rec Cliff baby rescue spoof, Jeff Lau's obviously not working on this level/considering from this angle. So, just strike what I just said from memory.

5) I think it probably lost likely to be a reference to the the absurdity of repeating events found in the earlier Stephen Chow "Chinese Odyssey" movies. I could invoke Nietzsche and the "eternal return of the same," but that's just me trying to add heft to make my argument sound bigger than it actually is. As a Jeff Lau thing, isn't the final twenty minutes of the first Chinese Odyssey movie Chow going back in time trying to prevent a female character from killing herself. Part of the shtick is Chow narrating the events as he re-does them over and over again. The fantastical language of Ronald Cheng's appearance in Three Kingdom's China makes me recall Chow's increasingly nervous/hysterical narration of his plight of failed time traveling heroics.

6) There's cliche in Asian movies where news or message isn't real until the person with the highest authority/biggest social "face" present says it's real. Cheng's crazy time traveling story isn't accepted as real until Cao Cao's own hype man(!) repeats it word for word. This makes me inclined to think this might be a dig of HK election politics and some news item that was big whilst the movie was being shot. Like some sort of _Ming Pao_ story you vaguely remember reading a few months back... Jeff Lau, however, couldn't possibly be working on that level, could he? Scratch that one off, then?

Wow, this reply is a lot longer than I thought it would be when I started typing. When watching the scene I think #5, 6, and 2 were running through my mind but as I look over what I've just scrawled, I wouldn't be convinced by my own above explanation. I think I liked the scene since it was the least kuso/e'gao humour found in the entire clip, which speaks of actual effort at making a joke as opposed to throwing out of-the-moment "in joke" moments and hoping something in the mess tickles someone's funny bone. That's my two cents. I'm kind of interested in hearing what other people found funny (or not funny.)

BTW, "What Women Want 2011" is probably the class of the recent Chinese yuppie rom-com boom (better than "Go Lala, Go" and "If You're the One"--now those are fighting words!) though I'd personally want to check out 2010 pics "Love in Cosmo" and "Ma Wen's Battle" before making such a bold claim.

Yi Lee - March 5, 2012 05:01 PM (GMT)
Hey Peter (and everybody else),

Having been on a personal odyssey to see a bunch of vintage Cantonese movies from the "Golden Age" of Hong Kong cinema before relocating to China in the near future, it seems your initial assessment of Jeff Lau is more "right on" than my own earlier one. Props to you for championing something that I initially thought was total rubbish.

The thing that is really striking about Lau's work in comparison to "old school" examples is just how closely patterned it is after the genre fare of the 1950s and 1960s. Things like pacing, plotting, scene framing, and so on are meticulously recreated with just enough of a twist that it's not outright plagiarism but definitely more copying to be just a passing homage of some sort. My point here isn't to accuse Jeff Lau of being a talentless hack. No, what I'm saying is I'm sort of astounded just how much his zany movies encapsulate Golden Age popular cinema down to repeating very precise scene beats (with his own quirky drum track added to accentuate various dramaturgical rhythms.) The words "palimpsest" and "mash-up" come quickly to mind.

Before digital technology was available to do so, it's as if the filmmaker were creating absurdist re-imaginings of what had become obscure material (left unseen in vaults for decades) using contemporary stars who bear an uncanny resemblance to their entertainment circle predecessors to rearrange his favorite scenes from old movies in new combinations to emphasize a particular point or accentuate a certain mood. Rather than being what I had perceived to be a third rate Jerry Zucker, Lau's work seems to be a deliberate provocation to viewers about the content and the form of Hong Kong cinema. I haven't seen enough of the old stuff to make any decisive declamations but for now, in the general scheme of things, Lau's work seems to be very a really dry, urbane Modernist joke told at a dinner party, clothed in postmodern accoutrements to distract the unfamiliar listener, but loaded with multiple layers of meaning for often very cerebral effect and punctuated with an easy-to-comprehend populist flourish.

Regarding the repeating dialogue joke, off the top of my head this seems to be a Lui Kei joke who specialized in such shtick or perhaps an homage to a Shek Kin scene whose badass villains always had a soft spot for comic interplay with on-screen adversaries.

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