At the Tongfu Inn in a small town in Ming dynasty China, brassy, no-nonsense innkeeper Tong Xiangyu (Yan Ni) and her wacky staff, husband and not-quite-reformed thief Bai Zhantang (Sha Yi), supernatural kung fu waitress Guo Furong (Yao Chen) and quick-witted scholar Lu Xiu-cai (Yu Entai) are having a lot of trouble with a particularly crafty customer. Wily court official Pei Zhicheng (Yue Yao-Li) keeps feigning suicide not only to get out of paying his bills but as part of a devious scheme to purchase property in the local area at reduced rates. Along with Bai Zhantang’s lovelorn, tomboyish sister, policewoman Zhu Wushang (Ni Hong-jie), the group gradually discover Pei is but one player in a broader conspiracy employing hired killers to murder anyone that gets in the way. One of these happens to be ambitious assassin Ji Wu-li (Wang Lei), who harbours a particular grudge against the folks at Tongfu Inn.
My Own Swordsman was the feature film spin-off from a popular sitcom on Chinese television. Don’t confuse this with anything along the lines of British Seventies efforts like On The Buses or Bless This House. Shang Jing expanded this production way beyond the parameters of your average sitcom to big screen transfer, mounting the action on an epic scope with inventive visuals, dynamic camera angles and gravity-defying martial arts sequences. On the downside, the film is clearly not aimed at newcomers and presumes a familiarity with these zany characters and their individual sub-plots. Happily, My Own Swordsman is still pretty darn funny. One doesn’t have to be a die-hard fan to draw amusement from such scenes as when Bai Zhantang takes a punch from the villain and protests “I haven’t posed yet!” or the running gag wherein Ji Wu-li pulls out an abacus to add up his fee before jumping into action.
Shang Jing employs a freewheeling mix of slapstick, rapid-fire verbal patter, fun animated sequences and spot-on parodies of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, karaoke, video games and popular Chinese infomercials. Things get playfully post-modern at several points including an amusing mock torture scene wherein one character remarks: “Hey, let’s put this scene in the trailer. It’ll be good box office!” Veteran Hong Kong actor-director Wu Ma, of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) fame, cameos in the role of a judge and also breaks the fourth wall as he laments how his poor grasp of Mandarin prevented him from landing really good roles in movies today. It is a sly comment on the pitfalls facing many Hong Kong stars during the current state of the film industry, such as the derision that greeted Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh in China over their performances in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) (a film otherwise lauded elsewhere), but does come across a tad snarky and snobbish for those of us who love Cantonese cinema.
The likeable cast imbue their peppy, appealing comic heroes with tremendous energy, at times coming across like live action Looney Tunes characters. Actress Yao Chen proves especially manic and engaging, forever on the verge of summoning her martial arts superpower. However the characters remain disarmingly faceted. Even the casually corrupt Pei emerges partly sympathetic by way of his tragic relationship with an ill-fated concubine named Chi Chi (Zhang Meng), while Zhu Wushang’s surprise romance with cross-eyed waiter Yan Xiaoliu (Xiao Jian) proves downright affecting. What is most remarkable about the film however is that it pitches its cast of comical goofballs into a complex conspiracy thriller that is totally serious. After the light-hearted first act things grow increasingly dark. Imagine a big screen version of Friends with the cast trailing a serial killer through New York.
At its centre rests a pretty harrowing tale of greed, corruption and murder with the deceptively mercenary, scrap-happy residents of Tongfu Inn eventually risking their lives to take a stand for what is right. At one point Tong Xiangyu speaks directly to camera about a real-life issue plaguing today’s Chinese citizens, namely corrupt officials raising house prices to take advantage of the poor. It is remarkable and laudable such a scene slipped past the mainland censors. Things build to a surprisingly brutal, genuinely suspenseful showdown wherein the good guys transform Tongfu Inn into a trap-laden fortress, climaxing with a stroke of cartoon genius worthy of Chuck Jones and an adroit critique of capitalism. Not many movies based on a sitcom can pull that off.