Wong Kar-Wai with over-the-top Japanese anime and
what might you get? Ming Ming. Music video
director Susie Au's debut feature is sometimes stunning
and sometimes unfathomable, meaning it's only partially
successful. But there's good stuff here, too. Zhou
Xun stars in two roles, first as Ming Ming, a black-clad
superchick who's fallen for D (Daniel Wu), a tough
enforcer working for mob boss Brother Cat (Taiwanese
singer Jeff Chang). While sharing some quality time
in the tub, D confides to Ming Ming that he only needs
two things: 5 million dollars and a trip to Harbin.
Rather than try to understand his need, Ming Ming
steals the money from Brother Cat. Her goal is to
hand it off to D so they can visit Harbin together.
Unfortunately, soon after snatching the money, Ming
Ming can't seem to find D.
Besides lifting the cash,
Ming Ming also takes a special wooden box from Brother
Cat, and he's exceptionally bothered to get that box
back. Brother Cat sends plenty of thugs after Ming
Ming, but she's able to fend them off thanks to her
keen martial arts skills and ability to throw, uh,
black beads. Ming Ming frequently flings these little
black beads (Which look like the tapioca balls you
might find in your boba milk tea. Mmmm, boba.) at
her pursuers, many of whom get punctured by the flying
projectiles. The chase eventually takes to the streets
of Central, where Ming Ming hands off the money to
Tu (Taiwanese star Tony Yang), who has the self-proclaimed
talent of "running", and manages to elude
many of Brother Cat's thugs by sometimes running up
walls or leaping in an egregiously wire-assisted way.
Chasing both Tu and Ming Ming is Mousey (Chan Bo-Yuen),
Brother Cat's number one henchman and a frequent recipient
of black pearl projectiles.
Tu has a minor thing for
Ming Ming, but during his extended chase with Brother
Cat's goons, he meets Nana, a spunky, cute, orange-haired
lass who becomes his inadverdant traveling partner.
Nana looks a lot like Ming Ming, which is understandable
because she's also played by Zhou Xun, only this time
in a louder, sassier, more girlish manner. In a massive
coincidence, Nana is also in love with D, which means
Tu now is on the run with a girl who looks like his
current crush, but has a crush on the same guy his
current crush does. Raise your hand if that sounds
confusing. Oddly, Tu and Nana's storyline gets greater
focus than Ming Ming's, as the two wander around and
eventually get drawn closer together despite carrying
torches for other people. Ming Ming takes a backseat,
and spends her time looking depressed in a hotel room
while Nana and Tu eat up all her screentime. The trade-off
isn't so bad because Nana and Tu make a charming couple
in that "shared unrequited love" kind of
way. The bad news is that without Ming Ming around,
the action sequences screech to a virtual halt.
Meanwhile, the ever-brooding
D has his own quest: he's searching for the whereabouts
of his mother, and the key may be the same wooden
box Ming Ming absconded with. Forget the fact that
at least two hot girls who look like Zhou Xun are
looking for him, D clearly has more important things
to do. His quest leads to a cameo from Kristy Yeung,
as well as a street fight with a bunch of black-clad
thugs that's part Matrix, part Kung Fu Hustle,
and part Looney Tunes. Eventually everything comes
together with a shocking revelation. One key character
dispenses the mother of all secrets, which no one
in the audience likely expected because it's outlandish
and seems to come from practically nowhere. Basically,
the film handles some of its themes better than others,
such that the big revelation may cause some viewers
to respond with a resounding, "Huh?", if
not outright laughter at the ridiculousness of what
the filmmakers are selling. Really, Ming Ming is that kind of movie.
But hey, that's okay,
because Ming Ming pretty much promises to be
unlike your usual movie a good five seconds into its
running time. Thanks to an abundance of showy style, Ming Ming proves downright alienating at first.
The overdone freeze frames, rapid-fire cuts, and off-kilter
editing can disorient the viewer, and the dense and
disconnected storyline only adds to the lack of identification. Ming Ming is a strange movie that operates
in a strange world. Flinging black beads for weapons?
How does a person do that? What's up with Tu's "running"
abilities? Why the over-stylized fights? Ming Ming is a work of tremendous imagination, though originality
may not be a factor here. There's a lot in Ming
Ming that's been seen before; the style is definitely
nothing new, having been lifted from the French New
Wave, Wong Kar-Wai, and yep, even The Matrix.
The effect could be instant alienation on those who've
seen any or all of the the above films.
Then again, it's hard to
knock any modern filmmaker for appropriating because
that's pretty much all one can do nowadays. Film and
pop-culture consciousness is something that no modern
filmmaker can be isolated from, and as a result there
are bound to be lifts here and there - though one
could argue that Ming Ming does it more than
just "here or there". Still, Au manages
to balance out the film's egregious style by getting
many of the emotions correct. During their questionably
relevant road trip, Tu and Nana slowly grow closer,
and Au captures that with affecting observational
style. The film sometimes slows to a crawl, but there's
some enjoyment in seeing the lovelorn Tu and Nana
futzing about. The action and chase sequences also
work sometimes; even though Au's MTV-influenced style
isn't that original, it's still exceptionally cool,
and the hip soundtrack (from Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming,
among others) and energetic camerawork are sometimes
enough to make Ming Ming soar. Susie Au has
created an intoxicating, sometimes seductive cinema
cocktail with Ming Ming. When it works, it's
quite a trip.
However, it doesn't always
work, which is where the film ultimately suffers.
Ming Ming earns points for its existential
emotions and sheer stylistic chutzpah, but the film
doesn't involve enough to erase its more glaring issues.
It's incredibly uneven and even overlong, with flashbacks,
repetition and other editing tricks noticeably padding
the film out. The drama is sometimes assumed rather
than earned, and the film's major plot twist is never
developed enough to make it more than a self-indulgent
plot detail. The action walks a thin line between
cool and silly, and while many of the stylistic flourises
do dazzle, others seem excessive if not pointless.
Style can sometimes be enough to carry a film, but Ming Ming's thematic aims are so transparent
that the whole film becomes a bit pandering. Too often,
Au settles for voiceover exposition to tell us what
the film is supposed to be about - a big no-no if
she's trying to sell this as a purely sensory experience.
And if the film is supposed to have real dramatic
weight, then the abundance of silly concepts only
gets in the way. A middle ground seems nearly impossible
to find here.
There's a lot to like in Ming
Ming but also a lot to scratch your head over,
and the balance could tip either way depending on
who you are. If Susie Au's goal was simply to assault
audiences with a pseudo-meaningful pop-art confection
then Ming Ming is a success. The style is nearly
enough to carry the film, and the actors (especially
Zhou Xun) are charismatic and brave enough to go wherever
Au chooses to take them. But if the goal was something
of more tangible thematic depth, then Ming Ming falters. The style never seems to echo the film's
self-proclaimed significance, and ultimately seems
unnecessary to the existential issues faced by so
many of the characters. Which is the way to go? Since
film is largely a subjective medium, then there's
probably no right answer here. Just pick your side
and reap the reward and/or punishment. At the very
least, Ming Ming is a tremendous first effort
for director Susie Au, and shows that she may have
a bright future ahead of her. Au doesn't fully succeed
with Ming Ming, but her obvious love for film
and its myraid powers gives us hope that one day her
passion will pay off. (Kozo 2007)