As a science fiction fan I’ve long been curious about I Love Maria (a.k.a Roboforce). Amongst other things, Chinese-language science fiction movies are relatively rare in my experience. But the other reason the film has hovered up and down in my To Be Watched list is because of the involvement of Tsui Hark.
The full nature of Tsui’s work on this film is still a little unclear to me. He’s credited as co-producer, and he plays one of the main characters, Whisky. Most sources say he also co-wrote and co-directed the film, but I haven’t seen any indication of how much of that work he did. The credited writer is Yuen Gai Chi, and the credited director is Chung Chi Man, who mostly worked as a cinematographer in a career that seems to have ended in 1995. I Love Maria was produced by Tsui’s new production company, Film Workshop, and it’s probably safe to say that Tsui had his fingers on everything coming out of the company to some extent or another.
I Love Maria is a comedy, and as such it isn’t very serious as science fiction. It feels a bit similar to the gadget-oriented comedy of the Mad Mission/Aces Go Places series. Like a lot of Hong Kong films of that era, it comes barreling helter-skelter out of the gate, and with the usual garbled subtitles I had a hard time getting a grasp on who all the factions were. What I’ve pieced together in the aftermath is that a gang called Hero is trying to take over the city using robots as weapons. They are opposed by the buffoonish police, and a police scientist named Curly, who has developed a superweapon to fight the robots, becomes disillusioned when his boss suppresses the invention out of pride. Curly teams up with Whisky, who is a drunken former gang member. The gang and the police both suspect these two of perfidy, and they’re caught in the crossfire as the gang creates a female robot who looks like gang member Maria (Sally Yeh) to kill them while the police try to arrest everyone. Meanwhile, a hapless reporter (an almost unrecognizable Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in an early role) bumbles on their trail.
A lot of the comedy was not very funny to me, and the first half of the movie really dragged as a result. It feels like one of those Hong Kong films that’s just making it up as they go along, so it rambles more than a bit. Things pick up, however, when the robot Maria is abducted and reprogrammed by Curly and Whisky. Sally Yeh is terrific as the robot, who is clearly modeled on the Maria/robot duality from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis*, although in I Love Maria it’s the robot who is a saint and the human woman who is a villain. Also, as the action becomes more concentrated, the story becomes less rambling. Despite the utter goofiness of the movie, it somehow manages to create a feeling of growing connection between a band of outcasts that almost feels genuine. The special effects vary in quality, but there’s an interesting escalation in robot design and scale as the story progresses.
The other thing that works in the film’s favor is the cast. Despite having sub-standard shtick to work with, Tsui is quite good at hamming it up as Whisky, as is his co-producer John Shum as Curly. Yeh is terrific in two parts, and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is fun in a completely uncharacteristic role. Then there’s Lam Ching Ying, who is more familiar to me playing fierce Taoist priests in films like Mr. Vampire. Here he’s the sifu of the Hero gang, wearing his uncertain motivations like a dapper bad-ass in a bespoke suit. The credits also list directors Kirk Wong and John Woo in bit parts, which only adds to the feeling that the whole thing was made on a lark with friends.
All in all, this is a pretty uneven effort. The slapstick comedy is Three Stooges level, so your enjoyment may depend on how much you like such buffoonery. Nonetheless, I did get some genuine laughs out of it, and some of the action sequences were quite good. A mixed bag, tending toward the not-so-good in my book, but not without its moments of fun.
*The Maria robot also wears a plastic raincoat at one point, which could be a reference to Lang’s Scarlet Street, is more likely to be a reference to Blade Runner, and is even more likely just to be a cheap bit of costuming and not a reference to anything. Although clear plastic raincoats do seem to be a cinematic Thing.