Following their Hong Kong box office smash, The Twins Effect (2003), Cantopop princesses Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung struck back with this superhero spoof. Gag for gag, it’s their funniest film. Gillian Chung plays, uh, Gillian – a bespectacled cutie (and aspiring psychologist) so embarrassed by her last name she transforms into a kung fu dynamo and pulverises anyone who says it out loud. After kicking the crap out of her college professor, Gillian finds herself homeless. Charlene Choi plays, uh, Charlene – a zany, young beauty who believes she is an alien (reliving flashbacks to her homeworld of CG Teletubbies) with psychic powers. Living in a shelter for single mothers, Charlene’s claims that on her planet everyone is called Mom carry little weight and she’s turfed out.
The girls meet up, become best buddies and discover a mysterious ad: “Protégé wanted”, offering free room and board. Amiable taxi driver Jim Lo (Ekin Cheng) – whom the girls dub J. Lo – takes them to a spooky, gothic mansion where they encounter eccentric superheroine Rose Noire (HK comedienne Teresa Mo, from John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992). Now an aging, delusional schizophrenic with a pathological hatred of men (and a pet robot called Jacket programmed to castrate men on sight), Rose needs a successor to carry on the good fight. Her mansion is an ipsy-dipsy fantasyland of secret passageways, rocket rollercoaster rides, magic windows and hidden dungeons where Gillian, Charlene and eventually, Jim (after his failed rescue bid) become trapped. Jim escapes castration, because he resembles Rose’s previous lovers Robin (Apparently Batman couldn’t afford his fee, so he shacked up with Rose) and Jackie Chan (who hightailed it after she taught him kung fu)! Rose’s punishing training regime nearly drives the girls away, but a tussle with some triads, and sudden revelations (set to the song: “Silent Night”) prompt a change of heart. Gillian and Charlene become the new Rose Noires, and international superstars to boot, kicking butt around Hong Kong. The stage is set for a showdown with sexy supervillain Miss LavenCan and her gang of retro-’60s femme fatales (including Donnie Yen’s kid sister as a nunchaku-wielding schoolgirl).
Rose Noire is actually a Hong Kong cinematic institution. Chu Yuan’s The Black Rose (1965) is a much loved screen classic, while the crime-busting heroines in the snazzy, black masks returned in a sprightly sequel (The Spy with My Face (1966)), a sexploitation/horror variant (Beauty Evil Rose (1994), and Jeff Lau’s award-winning comedy ’92 Legendary Rose Noir (1992). Protégé spruces the legend up for a new generation, with a fuel injection of Twins vitality. Hong Kong comedies may be an acquired taste, but only a killjoy wouldn’t laugh at Charlene’s weird trances, Gillian’s psychotic episodes, and their sidesplitting parody of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master (1978) – with both girls stumbling about in Jackie wigs. It’s mo lei tau, baby! That peculiarly Chinese brand of nonsensical comedy popular on screens during Chinese New Year (The movie concludes with the entire casting wishing everyone happy new year).
Co-director Donnie Yen’s slapstick fu melds well with Barbara Wong’s screwball comedy. Amidst sharp fight choreography and energetic camerawork, there are over-the-top set designs, colourful costumes, and kooky concepts like weird potions and magic pills, Twins spoofing their own press conferences, plus the opportunity to see Gillian and Charlene share a bubble bath. Having already played Rose’s hapless sidekick in Jeff Lau’s film, Teresa Mo is sublime as the delusional femme fatale, totally away with the fairies, as she floats around her mansion dreaming of yesteryear. Ekin Cheng continues redeeming himself after his lacklustre leading roles in the 1990s. He’s genuinely lovable as goofball Jim, who falls madly in love with Charlene, but can’t help saying stupid things (“Hey, you chicks are lesbians, right? Don’t worry, I’m not prejudiced!”) His would-be heroic rescue is among the funniest scenes in the movie, wherein he’s forced to pick up a pregnant woman, a bleeding child, an accident victim, two duelling street punks – the list goes on!
Of course, stars of the show are Gillian and Charlene, kicking butt in their super-stylish, superheroine outfits. Gillian’s fighting skills continue improving in leaps and bounds, the highlight being her frying pan versus nunchaku duel with that naughty schoolgirl. Charlene’s charisma lights up the screen (Apparently young, Hong Kong girls often mimic her lazy drawl), while her flair for zany improvisation yields mucho laughs. Lurching around doing drunken kung fu, she suddenly forgets where she is going, and when Gillian does a Matrix-style mid-air leap, Charlene moans: “Jeez, that is so boring.” (Amen, sister, amen). Gillian and Charlene treat their movies like a giant playground, creating an infectious sense of fun.