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A Chinese Tall Story

(left) Charlene Choi spreads her wings in A Chinese Tall Story, (right) Nicholas Tse as monk Tripitaka.

Chinese: 情癲大聖  
Year: 2005  
Director: Jeff Lau Chun-Wai  
Producer: Albert Lee, Wang Zhangliang, Wang Zhonglei
Writer: Kei On  
Action: Corey Yuen Kwai  
Cast: Nicholas Tse Ting-Fung, Charlene Choi Cheuk-Yin, Fan Bing-Bing, Wilson Chen, Kenny Kwan Chi-Bun, Steven Cheung Chi-Hung, Isabella Leong, Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Yuen Wah, Patrick Tam Yiu-Man, Wong Yat-Fei, GC Goo Bi, Lee Kin-Yan, Tats Lau Yi-Tat, Chan Wai-Man, Lai Yiu-Cheung
The Skinny: Thanks to its photogenic cast, incredibly uneven tone, chintzy CG effects, and stirring Joe Hisaishi score, A Chinese Tall Story is probably the best PS2 to live-action adaptation of an RPG ever. As a film, things get more problematic. Jeff Lau's film mixes some of his older tricks (overdone mo lei tau) with newer ones (all the pesky CG effects). The whole is a bombastic fantasy mess, but some charm does exist in there. Somewhere.
by Kozo:

Jeff Lau returns to Monkey King territory for the fantasy/adventure/kiddie-epic A Chinese Tall Story, a loosely-based reimagining of The Journey to the West funded by powerhouse entertainment group EEG. By "loosely-based", we mean really loosely-based, i.e. it bears almost no resemblance to its source material whatsoever. The film doesn't even concentrate on the Monkey King Sun Wukong, and instead focuses on his master, the Tang Priest assigned to fetch Buddhist scriptures from the West. The hook: the Tang Priest discovers love with a female imp, testing his suitability for his heavenly mission. The even bigger hook: everyone in the film is played by an EEG star, meaning even more marketing tie-ins and possible kickbacks. It's a cynical business.

Nicholas Tse is Tripitaka, the Tang monk on a quest to retrieve Buddhist scriptures with his three disciples Sun Wukong (Wilson Chen, looking nothing like a monkey), Sandy (Steven Cheung of Boy'z), and Piggy (Kenny Kwan, formerly of Boy'z). But on a stop in Shache City, Tripitaka comes under siege by the minions of the evil Tree Demon, who wants to feast on Tripitaka's flesh to become immortal. After a blowout CG battle worthy of the Sony Playstation, Sun Wukong ties Tripitaka to his fabled Golden Staff and throws the monk far, far away to keep him safe. The three disciples become captives of the Tree Demon, leaving Tripitaka to his own devices - which isn't such a hot idea. Though he's been given a very important task, Tripitaka is still quite naive, and thinks love and long-winded speeches are the way to humble the masses. His efforts usually earn him a quick, and not undeserved beating.

Tripitaka lands with a group of lizard imps, who believe he's actually Sun Wukong because he possesses the golden staff. Of course, if they knew he was Tripitaka they'd eat him because that's what everybody in Monkey King movies wants to do. Guarding him is Meiyan (Charlene Choi), a fabulously ugly lizard imp deemed an outcast even by her own people. Thanks to the magic of misinterpreted words and circumstances, Meiyan thinks Tripitaka loves her, and even when he denies it she remains steadfast in her belief that the monk will make her his one and only. Meiyan decides to help Tripitaka rescue his disciples, but not without plenty of ensuing hijinks including accidental murders, an elaborate plan to make Tripitaka a bad boy, and plenty of CG effects courtesy of the Golden Staff, which has the ability to transform into just about any handy device, from a mini jetplane to a boat to a battlemech out of The Matrix Revolutions. Will Tripitaka save his disciples, and can he actually love an ugly imp like Meiyan? And what's with the occasional appearances by aliens, or the extended sequence of Nicholas Tse in a Spider-Man costume? Could this movie make less sense?

Probably not, but making no sense is what director Jeff Lau does best. The auteur behind the Chinese Odyssey films makes mo lei tau his business, and he brings it full force to Chinese Tall Story. Characters engage in obtuse verbal jousting, anachronisms appear left and right, minor details crop up only to be forgotten five minutes later, and people get randomly socked in the face - all in the name of wacky, anything goes humor. The effect can be both tiresome and amusing. Certainly, Twins detractors will enjoy the sight of Charlene Choi accidentally getting punched in the face by Nicholas Tse, and there's humor value in Tripitaka's need to convert others through love. As described earlier, his earnest effort usually earns him beatings (or in one case, a stabbing), but it can be amusing stuff. True to form, Jeff Lau also lampoons Wong Kar-Wai's works whenever possible. The Golden Staff can only be activated if someone says to it, "I will love you for 10,000 years." When we first get introduced to Sun Wukong, he's telling a secret to a hole in the wall like Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in In the Mood for the Love. The necessity of such moments? Absolutely none. The humor value? Surprisingly ample.

It's not all wacky fun and games, though. What made the Chinese Odyssey films so successful was their ability to switch from silly humor to sometimes affecting emotions, and Chinese Tall Story tries that too. The results are less effective here, partly because it's not Stephen Chow or Tony Leung Chiu-Wai playing the lead. Nicholas Tse is an engaging comedian, but when he gets soulful it sometimes seems like a bit too much. Charlene Choi is quite effective when she's playing ugly, though when she finally gets pretty she becomes far less interesting. To be fair, the film does make their pairing attractive, and the score by Joe Hisaishi (Hayao Miyazaki's regular composer) sells the emotions with such ardent need that getting sucked in isn't hard. Hisaishi knows how to score a fantasy film, and if he got more for his work than the usual Hong Kong composer then he earned every penny. If the movie doesn't really affect you, at least Hisaishi's score might fool you into getting a little misty.

That is, until the blowout visual effects occur. Menfond Digital handled the extensive CGI, and their work would feel right at home on the Playstation 2. However, the big screen is another story. The climactic battle between the Tree Demon and the newly-transformed Meiyan is all told through visual effects. It's sometimes impressive, but the artificial sheen of the effects combined with the RPG-like plot (Meiyan becomes transformed from ugly imp to a super-powered ass-kicking angelic warrior) feels more like a cutscene in a Final Fantasy game than a Hong Kong movie. Overall, the effects feel empty, and possess none of the messy charm of the quick-cut wire-fu of the Chinese Odyssey films. Compounding things is yet another climax, which slams on the emotions with such relentless force that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. That everything gets resolved with a deux ex machina device makes it even less affecting. It's usually more interesting to watch people solve their own problems than having some hand of god deal with it all.

A Chinese Tall Story is like a Frankenstein Hong Kong film, filled with numerous ill-fitting parts that only work some of the time. The visual effects can be effective, but they're also somewhat alienating. The stars are photogenic and likable, but don't entirely convince. The plot zips all over the place, and the comedy misses as frequently as it hits. And does anyone really want to see a competely CG version of Charlene Choi? Yet despite the above, there's some minor entertainment value in Chinese Tall Story. Some of the comedy is fun, and there's even some "spot the star" value with appearances by Yuen Wah, Kara Hui, and Gordon Liu, among others. And give Jeff Lau credit: he had the foresight to get rid of the Boy'z for a good 90% of the film, plus he manages some poignancy through his tweaking of familiar Journey to the West iconography. As a mixture of silliness, sap, and CG-enhanced mania, Chinese Tall Story occasionally suffices. It's nowhere near as good as the Chinese Odyssey films, and ultimately feels like a bombastic mess, but somewhere in there is something that feels like Hong Kong Cinema. That's gotta be worth something. (Kozo 2005)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Joy Sales Film and Video Distributors
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various Extras

images courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen