A masked supervillain in an indestructible iron suit wielding a golden gun able to shoot through brick walls steals a priceless dinosaur fossil from the Chinese government. The call goes out to disgraced secret agent Ling Ling Chai (Stephen Chow Sing Chi), who now earns a living as a humble pork butcher in a sleepy little village, still sipping his daily vodka martini. Dim but deadly, Chai seizes his chance to spring back into action. Equipped with the latest gadgets and guns, he strides confidently into the luxurious Regent Hotel where leggy lovelies lounge around every corner. Only to discover he made a mistake. His reservation is actually at the the Regent Motel, a dank fleapit run by a hairy transvestite. After mistaking a dog for his contact, Chai meets his real partner, Kam (Anita Yuen), a mainland Chinese assassin eager to prove herself because her parents were dubbed traitors. What Chai doesn’t know is the government suspects he is the anonymous supervillain dubbed the Man with the Golden Gun. Kam has been assigned to eliminate him. Which proves harder than expected. Not only do Chai’s clumsy antics inadvertently foil Kam’s assassination attempts, but she finds herself falling for the dope.
From Beijing with Love marked the first time Stephen Chow Sing Chi, Hong Kong’s reigning king of comedy, shared directing duties with his regular collaborator Lee Lik Chi. In later years, Chow gained the confidence to fly solo resulting in his breakthrough international hits Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004), but this deceptively unassuming James Bond spoof was the first hint he had more on his mind than mere lowbrow hijinx. Kicking off with a highly amusing, cod-Maurice Binder title sequence that finds the tuxedo-clad comedian cavorting in silhouette cavorting with shapely dancers atop a giant golden gun, a gag Chow later revisited in Forbidden City Cop (1996), the film anticipates many of the gags Mike Myers included in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, three years later.
With scenes parodying numerous Bond movies and spy film clichés, right down to the inclusion of Pauline Chan as a sexy proto-fembot assassin equipped with a flame-throwing bra, much of the humour derives from the juxtaposition of Chow’s coarse Cantonese street humour against a chic Bondian backdrop. There is however an abundance of slapstick buffoonery perhaps more accessible to international viewers, upholding Chow’s fondness for anime-influenced sight gags. What From Beijing with Love does have that puts it in a class apart from Myers' spy spoofs is a succession of whiplash-inducing moodshifts from knockabout farce to moments of shocking violence, genuine pathos and surprisingly sharp satirical attacks on communist China. At one point Ling Ling Chai (whose name literally translates as: “Zero Zero Seven”) plead innocence in front of a firing squad, whereupon his voice is drowned by those of other innocent men framed by the state, sentenced to die with no hope in sight. It is a chilling scene. There is a hilarious gag where our hero escapes certain death by simply bribing the Chinese police, which coupled with the story’s big surprise twist is among several audacious elements.
More a character piece in the guise of a spoof, there is real depth to the story with moments of suspense and romance as accomplished as those found in any straight thriller. No matter how incongruous, every scene serves its purpose, underlining that Chow and Lik Chi have thought their story through. Among the most controversial is the scene where a child is held hostage at gunpoint and his father shot dead pleading for the boy’s life. However, even this alarming sequence serves to spur Chow’s character into action and his dedication to protecting innocent life that alters Kam’s perception of him, an opinion fostered by state-sponsored lies. It is worth noting this sequence is also an unconventional punchline to Ling Ling Chai’s amusing encounter in a restaurant with a man he discovers comes from the same village. Only Chai realises as a starving peasant, he once shot and ate this same man’s dog. The key scene underlining the film’s wildly offbeat but successful approach is when an injured Chai distracts himself by watching a porno film while Kam digs out an assassin’s bullet. It starts out incredibly tasteless and funny then grows increasingly emotional, capped by a poetic touch as their embrace mirrors a painting on the wall of Kam’s late parents. Then Chai realises the bullet came from Kam’s gun. A really unique, interestingly constructed scene.
At the time Anita Yuen was the most in-demand actress in Hong Kong after her role in Derek Yee’s era-defining romantic drama, C’est la vie mon cheri (1993). Steven Chow gave her more chances to shine here than Jackie Chan managed with Thunderbolt (1995) and Yuen proved surprisingly adept at deadpan physical comedy. Lots of laughs arise from her increasingly frantic attempts to shoot Chai dead which result in repeated injuries to herself, but the romance is also well-developed and not at all sickly. The moment Kam lines Chai in her gunsight till his heartfelt piano-playing and crooning cause her to hesitate is both funny and sweet.
Stylishly directed by Lik Chi and Chow the film flexes a larger than usual budget with lavish production values, sumptuous comic book styled cinematography and spectacular action scenes. Not only is From Beijing with Love among the funniest Hong Kong comedies but simply one of the best HK films of the Nineties.