Every day while CFI’s Hollywood readers take in the business of the Chinese film industry, the actual movies can sometimes seem exotic or remote. But in major US cities, mainstream Chinese films are increasingly available: thanks to Wanda’s purchase of AMC and distributors like China Lion, they get American theatrical releases practically simultaneous to their premieres at home. Though they receive virtually no publicity outside the non-Chinese community, these films are more than worth seeking out by anyone serious about engaging the Chinese industry, understanding the Chinese sensibility and familiarizing themselves with China’s talent pool. Periodically, CFI will review and point readers in the direction of noteworthy US releases of contemporary commercial and independent Chinese titles.
‘Buddies’ Out of Control in ‘India’
Buddies in India (2017), written and directed by Wang Baoqiang.
Distributed by ChinaLion, opened in the U.S. January 27, 2017 (cinemas here).
A bromance with a hollow message, combined with a whirlwind of wuxia action, road comedy, Bollywood musical, and a half-baked primer on classical monkey-god mythology, actor Wang Baoqiang’s directorial debut spins dizzyingly out of control, leaving viewers longing for prior outings such as Lost in Thailand, in which Wang’s comic performance shined, leaving plot, direction, and editing to more experienced players.
Wang is the best thing about Buddies in India and its downfall. His comic talent as a performer is prodigious. His commitment to his role as a feisty adult orphan fighting both to find a long-lost brother and to save their home from a rapacious developer’s bulldozer helps viewers new to Chinese cinema accept him as a supernaturally talented kung fu master and a modern-day version of China’s most popular superhero.
Wang plays Wu Kong, as in Sun Wukong, the mischief-making Monkey King from the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West. That he leads a cast of buddies also derived from that classic (actor Bai Ke as real estate heir/master Tang Sen, and actor Yue Yunpeng as sidekick Zhu “Piggy” Tianteng) on a journey to India echoes the classic’s plot while also nodding to the Monkey King’s relationship to the Hindu god Hanuman.
Once in India, though, comedy and drama are relegated to second fiddle, with flashy, fast-action, Matrix-inspired action choreography reducing the foreign locale to mere colorful background, with only one Indian character given a meaningful role. Action choreographer Guo Yong’s daring use of wire-work to fly Wang over his assailants’ heads, combined with the stunt camera work of cinematographer Zhang Keqiang, gives Buddies in India a stomach-churning pace that distracts, fleetingly, from its threadbare plot.
A pair of marathon fight sequences book-end the film’s second act, both Bollywood-esque musical mash-ups: one in a color-saturated sari factory, and the other at a surreal chili-eating contest that comprises the film’s paramount achievement.
In the sari factory set-piece, the Chinese actress Liu Yan enlists a gaggle of spear-wielding women warriors to hold hostage the real estate heir she fancies (Bai), sparking yet another rescue by Wu Kong, loyal in the hopes that the heir will save his house from destruction back home. Caught up in the melee, Piggy (Yue) is bodily subdued by a corpulent dark-skinned attacker whose voiceless character provides the worst of the film’s many overtly racist stereotypes of non-Chinese folks.
A problem to be sure: although the film is set in India, with the exception of a bumbling simpleton Indian waiter whom Wu Kong and the real estate heir Tang stiff for their bill, the only native character assigned the kind of meaningful role that might (repeat: might) attract Indian moviegoers is portrayed by actor Vikramjeet Virk.
The hulking, black-bearded Virk plays the Bull King (another character from Journey to the West). Attended by a retinue of scantily clad Indian babes, however, his version of the Bull King presides over an unlikely test of national prowess that his dancing and singing countrymen end up losing to the Chinese visitors: which contestant, from which stereotypically portrayed nationality, can eat the most vindaloo hot chilis? The dark-skinned African in tribal clothes? The turbaned Indian? The harpy of a white Western woman? No! The winner is the 32-year-old comedian from Hebei province, actor Wang Baoqiang, of course!
The oddest and perhaps funniest, if baldly racist, moment in an otherwise not-so-funny gross-out comedy comes when it’s revealed that Wang’s Wu Kong wins the chili-eating contest through cheating by deploying an Indian “curry flavored” condom to protect his tongue from the gastronomic heat. Busted!– causing another epic kung fu fight to breaks out all over, with the Chinese—surprise—winning once again.
One takeaway from all this might be that there’s only one Stephen Chow, and that his brand of anarchic live-action cartoon requires a high-level discipline and coherence that is still beyond Wang Baoqiang’s reach.
But viewers more attuned to politics than cinema might take all this in—they might also notice the Indian thematics in Jackie Chan’s New Year’s comedy, and echoes of Journey to the West in Stephen Chow’s—and they might wonder if Buddies In India were the result of some ham-fisted official initiative to promote Chinese culture to Indians through Beijing’s One Belt, One Road policy. They would be right: in an interview last year, Huo Jianqi, the director of Xuan Zang, another India-themed, Journey to the West-related film (China’s Academy Awards submission this year in the Best Foreign Language category) explained the government’s role in this Sino-Indian film push.
Seen from that perspective, Buddies in India’s failure as a first film is probably not all Wang’s fault. That so talented a player is compelled to survive by caving in to official demands is one of the unfortunate realities of the complicated business of moviemaking in China today, and something that western audiences need to keep in mind. Even the dramatic opposition posed at the film’s outset, painting hold-outs against Chinese real estate development as righteous and courageous dissolves by the finale into a message that resistance is pointless, and that one should seek solace (and distraction) in mindless, modern nationalist interpretations of the Chinese classics.
WHAT DOES THE GRADE MEAN?
Here are some recent & modern-era vintage Chinese and Hong Kong films for comparison
- PLATFORM (2000, dir Jia Zhangke)
- THE WORLD (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- DRUNKEN MASTER 2 (1994, dir. Lau Kar Leung & Jackie Chan)
- KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004, dir. Stephen Chow)
- LET THE BULLETS FLY (2010, dir Jiang Wen)
- THE MERMAID (2016, dir. Stephen Chow)
- A TOUCH OF SIN (2013, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- STILL LIFE (2006, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- LITTLE BIG SOLDIER (2010, dir. Ding Sheng)
- EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (2017, dir. Alan Mak & Anthony Pun)
- MR SIX (2015, dir. Guan Hu)
- A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES (2004, dir. Feng Xiaogang)
- SUZHOU RIVER (1999, dir. Lou Ye)
- HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004, dir Zhang Yimou)
- RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- DUCKWEED (2017, dir. Han Han)
- I BELONGED TO YOU (2016, dir. Zhang Yibai)
- THE GREAT WALL (2016, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- OLD STONE (2016, dir. Johnny Ma)
- CRAZY STONE (2006, dir. Ning Hao)
- GO, LALA GO (2010, dir. Xu Jinglei)
- KUNG FU YOGA (2017, dir. Stanley Tong)
- RAILROAD TIGERS (2016, dir. Ding Sheng)
- THE WASTED TIMES (2016, dir. Cheng Er)
- CHONGQING HOT POT (2016, dir. Yang Qing)
- MONSTER HUNT (2015, dir. Raman Hui)
- JOURNEY TO THE WEST: THE DEMONS STRIKE BACK (2017, dir. Tsui Hark)
- SOME LIKE IT HOT (2017, dir. Song Xiaofei & Dong Xu)
- BORN IN CHINA (2016, dir. Lu Chuan)
- TINY TIMES (2013, dir. Guo Jingming)