Jeff Lau is an interesting character in the Hong Kong film industry who is perhaps best known outside of Hong Kong for his collaborations with Wong Kar Wai and Stephen Chow. His writing credits are all over the place and include serious films such as Wong’s Days of Being Wild, but the movies he directs himself tend to be comedies. I actually haven’t seen very many of his directorial efforts, but his two part Journey to the West story with Stephen Chow, A Chinese Odyssey (1995), is a masterpiece of vulgar humor and mythological pathos. His ability to shift gears between the crass and the poignant is perhaps not unusual in Hong Kong cinema, and in fact A Chinese Tall Story, which is another riff on Journey to the West, feels like an old school Hong Kong film, even if not a completely successful one. In traditional fashion it throws so many things at the screen in a desperate effort to please that some of it is bound to tickle your fancy, and the less pleasing bits are quickly in the rearview mirror.
A Chinese Tall Story begins with the monk Tripitaka (Nicholas Tse), the Monkey King, the Pig Monk and the Sand Monk arriving at the sacred city Shache, where they expect to find the Buddhist scriptures that are the goal of their westward journey. Instead they’re attacked by demons, and Tripitaka is sent off to safety by the Monkey King before he and the other two monks are captured by the evil Tree Spirit. Tripitaka lands amongst lizard imps and is put in the custody of the supremely ugly imp Meiyan (Charlene Choi). They fall in love, and this puts Tripitaka at odds with his chaste heavenly destiny. Meiyan and Tripitaka set out to save the Monkey King and the other monks, and eventually they enlist the aid of an alien race (led by Fan Bing Bing as the Princess Xiaoshan) that has been monitoring human progress throughout history. An epic battle against the demons ensues, but there’s still the judgment of the Heavenly Court awaiting.
Lau claims in an interview included on the DVD that he wanted to tell this story back when he made A Chinese Odyssey but computer graphics were not yet up to the task. He says that his experience as a producer for Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004), convinced him that CG had finally gotten to the point where he could achieve the vision he had for the story, but it had to be modified in various ways. Seems strange that those modifications would include switching the protagonist from the Monkey King. as in A Chinese Odyssey, to Triptaka, but it does seem true that some of the action sequences feel like the CG-inflected action of Kung Fu Hustle. A Chinese Tall Story also shares the parodic attitude with Kung Fu Hustle, making fun of Tripitaka’s holiness and of its own action fantasy cliches. The goofy verbal play, which is always difficult to follow in subtitles, seems to be straight out of the Stephen Chow playbook — which I guess was invented by Jeff Lau to begin with.
This is not to say that A Chinese Tall Story is anywhere near as good as Kung Fu Hustle. That would be a pretty tall order, let alone a tall story. The film suffers from being overstuffed and thus a little unfocused. Some of the actors are there because they’re pop stars, and those characters are undercooked. The story elements really are formulaic, although the formulas are executed with great panache. The computer graphics are pretty good but a little chintzy looking at times. Fundamentally this is a story of the Last Temptation of Tripitaka, and it doesn’t fully pull off the pathos of that. Still and all, despite these flaws it’s a fascinating mix of all the most appealing elements of Hong Kong cinema: slapstick comedy, earnest ugly duckling romance, epic action, melodramatic self sacrifice, classical landscapes, fantastic transformations, and musical choreography.
It looks damned good, too. Lau composes striking images for the frame, and he’s got the classic Hong Kong ability to stage his actors in bold, expressive tableaus. The color palette of the film is subtle and brilliant, often creating a sense of fantasy and otherness all by itself. What’s amazing is how Lau can meld the completely artificial, anime-style CG landscapes with classical landscape shots that could come right out of King Hu. Lau also joins the throng of directors who have paid homage to King Hu’s bamboo grove scene in A Touch of Zen, and Lau actually creates something strikingly moody using practically nothing but light. The shifting between the artificial graphics and naturalistic but stylized sets also reminds me at times of Seijun Suzuki’s beautiful swan song, Princess Raccoon (2005), although it seems unlikely that Lau saw that film before making this one. But A Chinese Tall Story has a similar sense of the characters stepping out of three-dimensional sets into two-dimensional paintings.
The science fictional layer of the story, which is Star Wars as channeled through such immediate Star Wars rip-off films as Kinji Fukasaku’s Message from Space (1978), is the joker in the deck. It’s both unusual for a Hong Kong film, and takes the whole enterprise so far over the top that you can’t see the ground. There’s a videogame aesthetic at work that makes the whole thing feel like an animated movie at times, so it’s not really a surprise when it flat-out converts to an anime look for the action climax. How do you top that? How about with an appearance of the Buddha?
Well, despite the bamboo forest homage, nobody’s going to confuse this with the spiritual vision at the climax of A Touch of Zen. It’s almost surprising that Lau didn’t parody that transcendant imagery. It’s a tall story all right, piling one damn thing on top of another all the way to heaven, but it brings us back to earth in the end with a sweet, loving joke that restores us to the traditional world. This is not a great film, but it’s fine, goofy entertainment. Just the thing for a matinee on a rainy Saturday.