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It's a Wonderful Life

Ronald Cheng (center) and the cast of It's a Wonderful Life.

Chinese: 心想事成
Year: 2007
Director: Ronald Cheng Chung-Kei
Producer: Paco Wong
Writer: Ronald Cheng Chung-Kei,Patrick Kong
Cast: Ronald Cheng Chung-Kei, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Vincent Kok Tak-Chiu, Teresa Mo Sun-Kwan, Louisa So Yuk-Wah, Kate Yeung, Mia Yam, Alex Fong Lik-Sun, Amanda Strang, Chan Fai-Hung, Cheung Tat-Ming, Miki Yeung Oi-Gan, Tang Chi-Fung, Tin Kai-Man, Lam Chi-Chung, Chan Kwok-Kwan, Ken Lo Wai-Kwong, Kenny Bee, Kelly Chen, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, Lam Chi-Sin, Bat Leung-Gum, Edmond Leung Hon-Man, Fung Min-Hun, Candy Hau Woon-Ling
The Skinny: Standard Lunar New Year stuff, meaning it's a mixed bag of mugging stars, manufactured sentimentality, and occasionally funny jokes. It's a Wonderful Life entertains, annoys, and does nothing that could qualify as actual filmmaking. Did you expect anything else?
by Kozo:

Lunar New Year films return with It's a Wonderful Life - and when we say "return", we really mean it. It's a Wonderful Life possesses the standard genre iconography of Lunar New Year flicks past, meaning it's chock-full of star cameos, overdone acting, silly shenanigans, and manufactured sentimentality that wouldn't fool even the most daft moviegoer. Not surprisingly, the movie also stars Ronald Cheng. Hong Kong's Prince of Comedy stars as Thunder, a wacky heavenly god who once upon a time helped a mortal when he was in trouble. The actual incident involved a young kid named Ding Dong getting bullied by a loathsome triad (Francis Ng, in a sly reference to the Young and Dangerous movies). Thunder saves Ding Dong, but he also promises to help him out if he's ever in trouble. Unfortunately, Thunder hasn't kept his promise in the ensuing years, putting him in proverbial heavenly hot water. In order to right wrongs and spur the film's loaded plot, Thunder heads to Earth to help the adult Ding Dong (Vincent Kok) sort out his issues.

Of course, Ding Dong's current lot in life sucks. He's a department store manager who gets bullied by the customers and his colleagues, not to mention his boss Mr. Pak (Tony Leung Ka-Fai). Ding Dong's home life is supposedly pretty bad too; his wife (Louisa So Yuk-Wah) is a screwy artist with a visiting cousin, a bohemian layabout played by Cheung Tat-Ming. Brother Alex Fong Lik-Sun is a stuttering loser whose gambling-addicted girlfriend (Miki Yeung) gets him in debt with the triads. Meanwhile, sister Fong (Kate Yeung) is despondent over her string of loser boyfriends, and is on a perpetual crying jag. All this plus the youngest two kids, who put buckets on their heads and smash themselves silly daily. Essentially, Ding Dong's life is loserville, and Thunder is supposed to fix it lest the heavens frown upon him, or something like that. It should be easy, since Thunder has magical god powers that enable him to grant wishes. Logically, he should be able to fix everything with a snap of his fingers and return home to his girlfriend, the Saint of Nine Heavens (Mia Yam), right?

Wrong, and not because there's some conflict or difficulty that Thunder faces. Basically, this supposed god can't fix everything by simply clapping his hands because if he did, the movie wouldn't last for 100 minutes like its supposed to. The filmmakers need to stretch this out, so they do it by ignoring the basic rules the film creates. To wit: even though Thunder has godlike powers enabling him to control the people around him, he doesn't fix Ding Dong's life by snapping his fingers because he never actually considers it. Instead, he spends his first days with Ding Dong fending off the advances of Fong, as well as wandering around doing nothing of real import. Ronald Cheng plays Thunder with his usual earnest comic energy, but the star also disappears for long stretches of time, leaving the shenanigans to the rest of the cast. When Thunder finally does reappear to help out Ding Dong, he simply downloads some of his power to Ding Dong, whereupon everything is fixed. Ding Dong becomes king of his household and a hero at the department store, meaning everything is okay in the world. However, there's still the issue of Mr. Pak, who plots to do away with Ding Dong in an elaborate plan that recalls the plot of The Banquet. Will It's a Wonderful Life end on the same downer note as the maligned Feng Xiaogang drama?

No, of course it won't, because it's a Lunar New Year flick. Ergo, the film is required to possess a happy ending, if not an actual quality cinema experience. Like other films in its genre, It's a Wonderful Life is messy and uneven, and rides silly antics and famous faces to win box office dollars. The formula has worked in the past; stuff like the original All's Well Ends Well, or Eighth Happiness proved entertaining and inspired, usually due to charismatic stars and an infectious energy that current Hong Kong Cinema has all but lost. It's a Wonderful Life possesses some of that energy, but it's usually mixed in with routine filler and more than a few failed jokes. The filmmakers do get some laughs; some of the more inspired gags include the riff on The Banquet (the bad guys reason that they can pull off their plan because nobody actually saw the film), plus a bizarre sequence where Vincent Kok and Alex Fong watch a porn video featuring Ronald Cheng as a studly tennis player in a blond wig. The successful jokes can be credited to the law of averages: if you throw enough jokes out there, some of them have to hit. It's a Wonderful Life bats about .400 on the jokes, meaning it's already better then this year's earlier comedies, House of Mahjong and Kung Fu Mahjong 3. Basically, the film does possess the power to amuse.

That is, when the film isn't boring the socks off its audience. It's a Wonderful Life may get some laughs, but it also loses plenty due to its mystifyingly lazy pace. In between visual or physical gags, there are numerous scenes of actor banter or random nonsense, and many of these scenes are both unfunny and too long. The breaks give the audience time to reflect, whereupon they'll likely realize that this is a manufactured film featuring as much commercial conceit as creativity. Besides the labored emotional subplots - including a completely uninteresting love triangle between Thunder, Fong, and Saint of Nine Heavens - there are also more product placements than your average James Bond film. Ronald Cheng is currently Hong Kong's spokesperson for Coke, and nearly everyone and their father is drinking Coke in this movie. It's a Wonderful Life also features a cross-promotion with McDonald's; right now, you can turn in your ticket stub to get a free strawberry shake at the restaurant. Well, in the film, Cheng visits a former friend (Ken Lo, who makes a verbal reference to his Dragon Reloaded character) working at McDonald's, and the guy asks him if he'd like to try a strawberry shake because, as he puts it, "they're really good". There's even a groaner of a reference to Paco Wong, godfather of Gold Label, the artist management company responsible for Ronald Cheng, Alex Fong, the Cookies, and more. If the film actually made fun of its own rampant marketing, perhaps this would be fun. As it is, it's just crass and obnoxious.

But hey, it's Lunar New Year time so you can take it or leave it. Previous films in this genre were similarly crass and uneven, and operated off of the idea that audiences would be at the movies anyway, so why not produce ninety minutes of wacky filler to capture their ticket purchases? In movies like this, quality amusement is a fortunate by-product and not a guarantee. With those lowered expectations in mind, It's a Wonderful Life delivers everything it advertises that it will: 100 minutes of mild entertainment that could never qualify as essential. As Ronald Cheng's directorial debut, the film is barely passable, seemingly indicating that Cheng is exactly what he appears to be: a likable, sometimes annoying comic actor and a person who just wants to please the crowd. Like its star/director, It's a Wonderful Life tries to please the crowd too, and succeeds enough that blasting the film for its lack of actual quality feels unduly harsh. This is not a good film, but it's also not so bad that we should go postal on it. We'll save that for Kung Fu Mahjong 3 and House of Mahjong. (Kozo 2007)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Gold Label Publishing
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

image courtesy of Gold Label Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen