|Give Tsui Hark credit: the man doesn't give up. All About Women is Tsui Hark's return to the intentional comedy genre, having spent the last decade hanging around with Jean-Claude Van Damme and generally disappointing the Hong Kong Cinema faithful. Previously, Tsui was responsible for many entertaining and borderline schizophrenic screwball comedies, and All About Women attempts the difficult feat of joining those ranks. And why not? Tsui hasn't had much luck in other genres recently; Seven Swords was decent but unspectacular, and Missing was a five-alarm misfire. Some of Tsui's biggest hits have been populist comedies, and if action or thrills can't convert the masses, maybe laughs can. Is The Master back?
Based on All About Women's breathless pace, bizarre ideas, and schizophrenic storyline, my opinion would be: yes, Tsui Hark is back. However, not everyone will be happy that it's this Tsui Hark that's making a return, as All About Women has much more in common with Tsui's daffy mid-nineties comedies (think Love in the Time of Twilight and Tri-Star) than his revered eighties work (Shanghai Blues and Peking Opera Blues). The story, co-penned by Tsui and My Sassy Girl creator Kwak Jae-Yong, is a strange concoction of wacky plot devices, feminist themes, broad slapstick, and disconnected gags. The main story involves pheromone experimentation, but subplots include land redevelopment, renewable energy, billion dollar business deals, the indie rock scene, egregious product placement and ageless pop superstars. A pro-wrestling match could possess a more coherent narrative.
Zhou Xun stars as Fanfan, a clumsy worker at a medical clinic who secretly experiments with pheromones in order to find the secret to love. Her tests with pheromone stickers - little clear pads that emit chemicals designed to affect the opposite sex - initially fail, but persistence pays, and she eventually develops pheromones that drive men wild with lust. Empowered, she uses them on Xiaogang (Stephen Fung), an indie rocker who resembles her old dance instructor, who disappeared one day muttering something about how 100,000 people every year get into car crashes. Xiaogang sometimes works with Tie Ling (Kwai Lun-Mei), a teen poet/novelist/rocker who practices boxing and imagines that she's dating pop superstar X (Godfrey Kao). Her fantasy is both willing and disturbing - she frequently talks to her imaginary boyfriend in public, much to the confusion or annoyance of people nearby. Regardless of their stares, she continues on her quirky way in a manner that's part rebellious and part insane.
Tie Ling does have a real, non-fictional admirer; she's shadowed by Mo Qiyan (Eddie Peng), a mousy male secretary who adores her bohemian style and overbearing strangeness. Mo works for his cousin Tang Lu (Kitty Zhang) a gorgeous mistress of the universe who's ostracized because she's so beautiful that men will dump their fiancées and girlfriends in order to get a whiff of her disdain. Determined to prove that it's her talent and not her looks that make her a power player, Tang Lu has Plain Jane colleague Tian Yuan (Shen Chang) pretend to be her while initiating a deal with environmentalist Wu Mong-Gu (Alex Fong, at his most rugged and dashing). However, at the key moment, Fanfan, Tie Ling and Tang Lu's lives intersect, with situations going spectacularly awry. Fanfan's pheromone stickers get attached to everyone, and love, lust and other crazy things get mashed together in a sitcom free-for-all that's breathless and near incomprehensible. People break up and make up, lives change, and the overacting gets hiked a notch. Audience members either check their watches or applaud at the craziness of it all.
In the most blunt terms, Tsui Hark and Kwak Jae-Yong's story is a cluttered mess - though to be fair, it's questionable if story is or ever has been Tsui Hark's main concern. With All About Women, Tsui and Kwak seem to be telling their own version of the female romantic fantasy, slyly subverting usual male power fantasies while having as much random, unfathomable fun as they possibly can. The result has its charms, but audience mileage will vary so greatly that it would be impossible to recommend the film to everyone as a good time at the movies. All About Women is unexpected and entertaining, but also too tiring for Joe Q. Public. The film can be recommended as a creative, dizzying slapstick affair that's enjoyable for its pure energy. At the same time, the film can be taken to task for many, many reasons.
First of all, the film possesses confusing storytelling and an alienating, over-the-top silliness. The humor is breathless but also quite dense, with gags and jokes that seem self-indulgent if not completely nonsensical. From minute one, Tsui Hark assaults with his all-over-the-place comic stylings, and the chance of early alienation is high. But, if you can get past the breathlessly bizarre introductions to these off-the-wall characters, then All About Women can be a fun surprise. If not, then maybe you should check out another film, because All About Women doesn't really get better than how it begins. It merely continues along in an idiosyncratic manner, using onscreen animation, wacky situations, over-the-top production design, and more overacting than is necessary to spin its questionably coherent yarn.
The sound design doesn't help much; the film was largely dubbed in post, and the obvious ADR dubbing doesn't jibe with the big budget, glitzy production design, fab costuming and preponderance of brand name product placement. Also, the movie seems to take forever to end. It’s overlong at two hours, plus the last half of the film is one extended set piece after the next, and after a while it starts to feel aimless. The film climaxes at an indie rock concert set at an old factory that's about to be redeveloped, and it's there that relationships are settled and realizations achieved. Tie Ling settles her issues with imaginary boyfriend X, Fanfan confronts her chicanery in using pheromones to induce love, and Tang Lu gets zapped by love and reveals that she plays a mean yueqin - just like that old guy in Cape No. 7! Is there really any rhyme or reason to what Tsui Hark and Kwak Jae-Yong have cooked up here?
Actually yes, there is, though it's not necessarily overt. There's voiceover and obvious thematic dialogue that seems to explain too much, and yet Tsui leaves enough unsaid that the audience can actually gleam something of their own. Even in Tsui’s most throwaway films, he’s achieved some sort of substance through style, and All About Women manages to keep pace. The actresses help in varying degrees. Zhou Xun is perfectly fine as Fanfan, but her character is the most difficult to like, such that the "will they or won't they" plot between she and Stephen Fung's Xiaogang doesn't hold interest. Kwai Lun-Mei is delightfully animated as the addled Tie Ling – a departure for her, since her usual gig is to earn sympathy through silent, soulful suffering. However, it’s Kitty Zhang who impresses the most. Only eye candy in CJ7, Zhang shows here that she’s a potential star who possesses a striking screen presence and fine comic timing. Considering how little she’s shown before, Kitty Zhang could be All About Women’s biggest story.
The second-biggest story? Probably Tsui Hark’s continuing refusal to do things the way everyone else does. Of all the Hong Kong directors who made their mark in the eighties, Tsui seems to be having the toughest time finding acceptance in the new millennium (though a case could probably be made for Ringo Lam, too). The style Tsui employs in All About Women is distinctly his, but at the same time it feels oddly dated – like it belongs with a film with lower production values and a healthy helping of Hong Kong-style action to make everything even more over-the-top. Tsui’s style is idiosyncratic but not identifiable with any real demographic anymore. It’s like he’s marching to a beat that only he understands.
As a commercial filmmaking iconoclast, Tsui Hark is still without peer, but it’s hard to imagine the masses seeing it. After all, there are few cineaste circles or geek culture fansites truly supporting his work in the west, and in the east it seems that he’s still coasting off of previous successes. Generally speaking, does anyone in the moviegoing public interpret the words “A Tsui Hark Film” as a guarantee of quality anymore? And yet he continues on undeterred, and there are still some reasons – however bizarre, unexpected, or even misguided they may be - to watch. Sadly, All About Women is not the project that will mark his return to popular prominence, as it’s simply too strange and alienating to be palatable to everyone. But as a member of Tsui Hark’s unique and inimitable body of work, it manages to earn its wings. Sometimes, it even takes flight. (Kozo 2008)