Monday, February 14, 2011

A ‘Gorgeous’ Guilty Pleasure

Scene: It’s the romantic-comedy edition of Survivor, and five films battle it out on the island to earn the title of Best Rom-Com of All Time. The celluloid competitors are Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), and Vincent Kok’s Gorgeous (1999). Which movie will be the first to be voted off the island?

Okay, you don’t need to be Siskel and Ebert to figure that one out. Even if you have only a passing knowledge of the genre, the answer should be staring you in the face. Four of the titles are not only Oscar-winning masterpieces of the romantic comedy, but arguably among the best films ever made. And the fifth is ... well ... not. In fact, the fifth could even be reasonably dismissed as the exact inverse of a masterpiece. So, the answer ought to be obvious. Barring a Bristolesque upset, Gorgeous would be the first to go.

So, why put the undistinguished Gorgeous in such distinguished company, even if only on an absurd imaginary TV show? Because of something very curious — to me, anyway. It Happened One Night, The Apartment, Annie Hall, and Shakespeare in Love compel my attention because they get so many things right. Gorgeous, on the other hand, gets so many things wrong but still compels my attention. What’s up with that?

Just looking at the vital stats of this 1999 Hong Kong rom-com gives you some idea of just how unpromising its material is:

  • The male lead: a Hong Kong garbage magnate pushing middle age who does kung-fu on the side.
  • The female lead: a wandering Taiwanese gamine who comes across as barely legal, if that.
  • The female lead meets the male lead by first claiming to be an illegal immigrant and then changing her story in order to pretend she’s a gangster’s girlfriend.
  • Very few scenes of genuine, credible romantic development between the male lead and the female lead.
  • A huge story-hogging subplot about a rival of the male lead constantly goading our protagonist into full-body boxing matches.
  • A “lose” that makes us question the female lead’s integrity.
  • A highly contrived, unnecessary story element of the female lead communicating with a wild dolphin.
  • And as if all that weren’t bad enough, a histrionic supporting cast whose excessive mugging would seem over-the-top on a sit-com.

This outline is indubitably the recipe for a train wreck twice over. So, how did such ill-omened material get turned into an actual sprocket-holed movie at all, even in the chaotic, slapdash filmmaking environment of Hong Kong? Oh, one more thing: the male lead is played by Jackie Chan, perhaps the biggest movie star ever to come out of the former British colony. And the female lead is played by Shu Qi, whose bewitching visage gives the film its English title.

Here is how Brian Thomas summarizes the film’s plot in VideoHound’s Dragon: Asian Action and Cult Flicks:

On Fortune Shell Island, Taiwan, a girl named Bu (Shu Qi) finds a message in a bottle from a man looking for love. Wildly romantic, she follows the address to Hong Kong hoping to meet her soul mate, but instead finds fashion makeup artist Albert (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who wrote the message to an ex-boyfriend. Helping [Albert] out on a photo shoot, Bu sees millionaire playboy Nick Chan ([Jackie] Chan) attacked by hoods sent by his rival Howie Lo (Emil Chau), and goes to rescue him. To win [Nick’s] heart, she has Albert pretend to be a jealous mobster, with Bu his girlfriend, so Nick can rescue her from [Albert’s] “thugs” (actually Albert’s friends). Since Lo’s real thugs ... can’t beat Nick (whose hobby is kung fu), he hires Alan (Brad Allan), a tough-but-short fighter from overseas, to beat Nick up. Meanwhile, Bu’s fiancé [!] (Richie Ren) comes looking for her and has to be delayed by Albert. (p.283)

While Thomas’ synopsis calls Chan’s character Nick, in the English-dubbed version of Gorgeous, he’s called C.N.

This story line poses a number of conceptual problems. First of all, why make the leading man, C.N., a garbage magnate? That doesn’t sound like the kind of profession that audiences are clamoring for leading men to play. Yes, a Hong Kong garbage magnate deserves love just as much as any poor tailor from Anatevka, but it’s not the kind of career that would provide an environment rich with possibilities for a romantic story to unfold. To boot, why would such a character be an expert martial artist?

To answer these questions, in the DVD’s making-of supplemental documentary, Jackie Chan, who produced and co-wrote the film as well, said that he included the story elements of the garbage magnate — who specializes in recycling rubbish — and the wild dolphin to convey an environmental subtext to the narrative. However, such a subtext doesn’t really enhance the story, nor is it necessary. (Also, C.N. ends the movie by littering the ocean with dozens of glass bottles. What kind of environmental message is that?) And the boxing scenes (between C.N., Howie’s henchmen, and Alan) were included because Chan is primarily an action star, and such scenes are what his audience would expect.

You’ll notice that the synopsis says something about Bu having a fiancé. Giving Bu a Mr. Wrong of this kind could work if the character were someone the audience could actively root against (a threatening bigwig who coerced her into the betrothal, maybe?), but Gorgeous goofs up by making its Mr. Wrong character, Louie, an unpretentious boy-next-door. In one of the first scenes, a nervous Louie proposes to a blithe Bu, and with an air of implausibility, she says that she’ll consider it — in other words, she strings him along. Before long, Bu takes off to Hong Kong in search of true love, so it’s clear that she doesn’t intend to marry Louie. Because Louie is such a likable guy, our sympathies side with him and not the can’t-give-a-straight-answer Bu. When the earnest Louie follows Bu to Hong Kong, and she spends most of her time avoiding her heartbroken suitor, our sympathies for the poor guy are redoubled.

When Bu meets C.N., she first claims to be an illegal immigrant to Hong Kong from Vietnam (instead of merely a tourist from Taiwan), but she changes her story to pretend to be a gangster’s girlfriend (inspired by her reading a newspaper story of same) in order to contrive C.N. “rescuing” her from some faux henchmen. Not only does she thoughtlessly string another guy along, but she starts off her relationship with C.N. by lying to him for no good reason. Bu is not a rom-com leading lady that we can root for.

Moreover, Gorgeous doesn’t really develop the romance between C.N. and Bu. Bu not only lies to C.N., but she basically teases him — encouraging his interest and then vanishing unexpectedly. Instead of giving us character-driven scenes showing C.N.’s and Bu’s feelings for each other deepening, Gorgeous cops out and gives us a Kodak-moments montage set to a syrupy Cantopop song. The “lose” comes when Bu discovers that C.N. knew all along that she was never the gangster’s moll that she claimed to be. Accusing C.N. of “rewriting” the ending of their fairy-tale love story, she tearfully returns to Taiwan. In other words, Bu lies to C.N., but she’s upset with him when she realizes that he never really believed her deceit — and C.N. is blamed for hurting her instead of Bu being faulted for trying to pull the wool over his eyes. Huh?

And then, there’s the issue of the age difference between Jackie Chan and Shu Qi. When Gorgeous was released, Shu was 23 and Chan 45, almost twice her age. Because Shu plays Bu as a jejune nymphette, the character gives the impression of being underage in both appearance and behavior. Chan, meanwhile, has hair that’s beginning to gray and a face beginning to wrinkle. In order not to make C.N. look like a lech, Gorgeous makes Bu the primary aggressor in the relationship — much the way that Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) made Audrey Hepburn the aggressor in her romance with the much-older Cary Grant. But the age difference between Chan and Shu in Gorgeous still seems so considerable that you get the idea Nabokov wrote the script (although, that’s the only thing that would give you that idea).

Jackie Chan and Shu Qi in ‘Gorgeous’ (1999)

Okay, with all this stuff going against the movie, why do I watch the copiously flawed Gorgeous over and over again? Good question. Well, the film does have one major asset in its favor: the camera spends mucho tiempo lingering over the loveliness of the winsome Ms. Shu. Also, as I’ve said before, my critical faculties fall to pieces when I watch even the most pedestrian of romantic comedies. So, beholding the beautiful Shu Qi playing the female lead in one of my favorite genres is catnip to me.

Moreover, I’ve been a fan of Jackie Chan’s action movies for years. I like the way he fluidly moves in surprising ways and employs unexpected props in his kung-fu scenes, both of which lend his on-screen fights an air of humor, turning altercations into virtual ballets and softening the violence. Although C.N.’s fight scenes aren’t integrated into Gorgeous’ love story very well, they preserve the humor and quirkiness that viewers have come to expect from Jackie Chan’s action films. And, as I said before, audiences would have probably felt ripped off by a Jackie Chan movie with no kung-fu.

However, it’s fascinating to me that a romantic comedy would try to integrate action scenes of any kind without turning itself into an action-movie/rom-com hybrid. The fighting comes about merely because Howie Lo has a personal grudge against C.N.; the fisticuffs would need to have higher stakes in order to qualify Gorgeous as a full-fledged action film. That Gorgeous would make such an effort demonstrates the elasticity of the rom-com genre. And Chan’s willingness to accommodate his martial arts into a (non-hybrid) romantic comedy gives his fight scenes a somewhat surrealistic aura: the eruptions of violence — especially violence born of a petty personal grudge — fissure the rom-com’s anti-violent, “love conquers all” ethos. Chan’s clever, balletic fighting ruptures whatever wholeness the misconceived, poorly plotted love story may have engendered. As a result, the flaws in Gorgeous’ story-line feel like fellow ruptures in an amorphous concoction that was never supposed to gel in the first place.

For all its deficiencies, Gorgeous makes for enthralling viewing — at least to me. While It Happened One Night, The Apartment, Annie Hall, and Shakespeare in Love glory in their catchy concepts and air-tight stories, Gorgeous spastically staggers in its inelegant fusing of an ill-conceived love story with mismatched moments of low-stakes pugilism. For me, it’s fascinating to watch the frisson as these clashing traits try to blend together, jumble among themselves, but ultimately uncouple. In its combustion of conflicting elements, Gorgeous is a magnificent mess, held tenuously together by a good-looking cast. But in these ironic, post-modern days — with movie critics’ new appreciation for films with intriguing imperfections throwing their better-made brethren into thought-provoking relief — maybe Gorgeous will find a way to survive on the island after all.

Music video for Gorgeous: Angela Chang sings “I Really Love You”

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