Lovely, lovelorn Ah Bu (Shu Qi) lives in a small Taiwanese fishing village where her best friend is a dolphin and her romantic prospects seem slim. She has spent her whole life dreaming of Prince Charming. One night a bottle washes ashore with a message inside that reads: “I'll be waiting in Hong Kong. Come find me. Albert.” Believing fate is leading her to her dream man, Ah Bu flies to Hong Kong only to find that Albert (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is handsome, witty and gay. Happily he also proves nice enough to brush off the misunderstanding and arranges for Ah Bu to hang out at one of his photo-shoots aboard a boat. It is here that Ah Bu spies billionaire playboy C.N. Chan (Jackie Chan) across the water on his yacht fighting off a bunch of thugs hired by his embittered business rival Howie Lo (Emil Chow Wai-Kin). After Ah Bu drives a speedboat to save Chan from drowning, the pair strike up a tentative romance. But aware of Chan's reputation, Ah Bu tries to win his heart by pretending to be someone more sophisticated and mysterious.
Gorgeous was meant to be the first Jackie Chan film to feature no fighting or stunts whatsoever. Unfortunately, Hong Kong audiences were initially unimpressed by this attempt to prove Jackie and his parent studio Golden Harvest could make a heart-warming, character-driven romantic comedy in the Hollywood style. It was only after Jackie dutifully went back and shot some additional action scenes that the film caught fire at the box office. Meanwhile, legions of die-hard kung fu film fan boys in the West took against Jackie's new film for an entirely inexplicable reason: his co-star. Yes, believe it or not, there was a time when fan boys could not stand the sight of Shu Qi. Quite why this supremely talented, charismatic actress, not to mention one of the most beautiful women on the planet, aroused such ire among the HK film fan community remains a mystery but for some reason she briefly became the emblem of an industry perceived to be in decline. The fact is, Gorgeous was more a Shu Qi vehicle than a Jackie Chan film and some people really didn't like that.
More than a decade down the line we can see that Gorgeous was ahead of its time given the slew of rom-coms that dominated Hong Kong cinema over the following five years. Co-written by Jackie Chan and comedy specialist Vincent Kok Tak-Chiu, the plot is vaguely reminiscent of the proto-Nicholas Sparks adaptation Message in a Bottle (1999) although the filmmakers lift motifs from among others Pretty Woman (1990) and While You Were Sleeping (1996). The pair clearly studied Hollywood rom-coms closely given the film's aptly gorgeous cinematography imparts a familiarly warm-hearted mood in varied shades of gold and aquamarine. The title refers to Chan's comment that the stars are always gorgeous above Hong Kong. To which Ah Bu counters the stars are beautiful everywhere, you just have to look up and see them. The story is partly a satire of Hong Kong residents snobby, superior attitude to their Taiwanese cousins. Throughout the film our scrappy Cinderella-like heroine Ah Bu takes some flak from sarcastic city folks for being seemingly uncouth and clueless about fashion and French cuisine, but ultimately proves she has the integrity, substance and heart they lack.
Shu Qi delivers an adorable, wholly captivating performance that proved her entry point into the mainstream. She initially found fame with a line of racy calendars that made her the pin-up idol of choice in the Nineties and segued into a career in Category III soft-core porn, most notably the genuinely pretty darn erotic Sex & Zen II (1996). Thereafter she won the Hong Kong film award as best supporting actress, sending herself up as a soft-core star in Derek Yee's satirical comedy Viva Erotica (1996). After that there was no stopping her despite losing out on an international career when her agent turned down the lead in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) (she soon fired him). A long association with Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao Hsien with acclaimed roles in Millennium Mambo (2001) and Three Times (2005) earned her a slew of best actress awards after which she became pretty much ubiquitous in both blockbuster and art-house fare. Take a look at Qi's exuberant turn in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2012) and you'll see a star at the peak of her powers. Has any other actress had such a remarkable career trajectory from porn star to respected multi-award winner?
By Jackie Chan standards, Gorgeous is an undeniably sedate film, perhaps overly reliant upon Shu Qi's wide-eyed charm and comedic gifts, relegating the clown prince of kung fu to a straight man role. Nevertheless, Chan plays the role of a suave playboy very convincingly, proving again how underrated he is as an actor. As something of a star-studded affair the film features blink-and-you'll miss 'em cameos from future superstars Stephen Fung, Daniel Wu and queen of comedy Sandra Ng along with a more substantial turn from the great Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who gives an admirably non-caricatured performance as Ah Bu's gay B.F.F. Absent from the international cut however is a cameo from Stephen Chow Sing-Chi which was part of a gentleman's agreement between the two biggest stars in Hong Kong cinema following Jackie's cameo in The King of Comedy (1999). The action sequences, choreographed by Jackie as usual, might not rank among his most memorable but are as fast-paced and athletic as one would expect from a Jackie Chan production. The finale epic slapstick bout is particularly inventive and fun, vaguely reminiscent of his career highlight face-off against Benny 'The Jet' Urquidez in the superb Wheels on Meals (1984).
On the downside, the corporate rivalry sub-plot fails to engage. There is too much talk of stocks and shares, although Jackie's complex relationship with disturbed rival Howie proves unexpectedly touching. This was the first Jackie Chan film where hero and villain bond over mutual romantic frustration. Mid-way through the plot gets derailed when Howie hires Alan (Bradley James Allan), a diminutive but deadly American kung fu expert who fights Jackie to a stand-still. Thereafter, Ah Bu gets sidelined as a defeated Jackie endures an arduous Rocky-style training regime to get back the eye of the tiger. Clearly, the filmmakers set out to make one kind of film but were forced to divert into another. Also the familiar rom-com third act misunderstanding proves simply confusing here as it is not clear why Ah Bu gets upset nor why Jackie has to endure such a beating at the hands of her father.