Imagine ten different movies scrunched into one, bonkers, fairytale epic. A sci-fi love story concocted by an eight-year-old Chinese film fanatic on a giddy sugar rush. That is the closest description to A Chinese Tall Story. Award winning filmmaker Jeff Lau reworks the legend of Monkey King, a story beloved by children across Asia. It begins like a spoof. Pious monk Tripitaka (Nicholas Tsep) and his disciples Monkey (Chen Po-lin), Pigsy (Kenny Kwan) and Sandy (Steven Cheung) arrive in Shache City, and strike boy band poses before crowds of adoring fans. The heroes are betrayed and the city attacked by a towering, supernatural entity called Root of All Evils, and his flying army of CGI horrors.
A spectacular aerial battle sees Monkey summon thousands of levitating apes, but three heroes are captured. Only Tripitaka escapes with Monkey’s magical Golden Pole (Animated with human traits, like the carpet in Disney’s Aladdin). A tribe of lizard imps catches him, planning to consume his flesh and attain immortality. Their matriarch (martial arts diva, Hui Ying Hung) entrusts handsome Tripitaka to the one person immune to his charms, her hideous daughter Meiyan (Charlene Choi – one half of Canto-pop megastars Twins – under toady makeup). Meiyan falls hopelessly in love, although self-righteous Tripitaka, who sees sin in everyone, is blind to her inner beauty. When flying monsters attack, they go on the run, searching for a way to save the universe.
Choi’s flair for improvising kooky comedy, and Lau’s delirious imagination propel the movie from Cinderella love story, to gross-out humour (gags about genital hygiene), Hollywood spoofs (Tripitaka dresses up like Spider-Man, and rocket-ship journeys to magical worlds (including a candy-coloured Never Land in outer space, a world of living ink drawings, and breathtakingly beautiful forest idylls filmed on location in mainland China). Meiyan and Tripitaka befriend some kung fu bandits, including the Red Child (Isabella Leong – the Chinese Scarlett Johansson, a hot starlet with talent to burn, cast in everything). They rescue a wisecracking, cosmic princess (Fan Bingbing) and the film suddenly transforms into a post-Phantom Menace space opera.
Lau delivers a toy box of wonders: incredible, transforming spaceships battling kung fu warriors. Martial arts superpowers versus alien death rays. A twist sees heartbroken Meiyan revealed as an orphan from outer space, and the object of an unexpected lesbian crush. Reborn into an angel-winged beauty (with Choi in all her gorgeous glory), she becomes an all-powerful, galactic warrior. Lau cribs directly from Star Wars’ race to destroy the Death Star, with space troopers on speeder bikes outracing ancient demons, and Meiyan flying to rescue Monkey and co. He mixes the over the top heroics of Chinese comics and Infra-Man (1975) (Meiyan conjures hi-tech super-weaponry to blast away the now planet-sized Root of All Evils), with Pixar trickery (while Golden Pole transforms into everything from speedboats to spaceships, the finest moment is when it consoles a weeping Meiyan), and lyrical moments of animated fantasy reminiscent of Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki’s regular composer Joe Hisaishi provides the enchanting score.
Of all Hong Kong’s new wave filmmakers, Jeff Lau has the lowest western profile. Probably because while John Woo makes action movies and Wong Kar Wai (Lau’s producing partner) makes arthouse romances, Lau is a master of a parochial genre: mo lei tau. Loosely translated as “non sequitur”, this genre is box office gold throughout Asia, mixing “anything goes” logic (characters acquire superpowers for one scene, promptly forgotten by the next) and lowbrow humour. Lau’s work adds witty wordplay, clever subtext, allusions to classical culture, and a genuine feel for love, heartbreak and yearning after unattainable romance. Chinese critics consider earlier works like ’92 Legendary Rose Noire (1992) and the two part A Chinese Odyssey (2004) – starring comedy superstar and frequent collaborator, Stephen Chow Sing Chi – among the greatest films of all time.
Many western fans of Hong Kong film despise this film (a box office hit in Asia and France), because of its uneven tone. Don’t listen to them. Just when you think it’s all over, A Chinese Tall Story pulls an ace out of its sleeve, transforming once again, into a philosophical tragedy. A jury in Heaven (headed by Shaw Bros. legend Gordon Liu, from Kill Bill (2003)) place Meiyan on trial for the crime of being human. Amidst cloud dragons, fairy princesses, and sci-fi wonderment, Lau suddenly critiques traditional Chinese values. Tripitaka realises his sanctimonious sermonising only masks his intolerance of simple, human frailties. Meiyan, the ‘inhuman’ girl he loves, is the most humane person in Heaven. The mind-blowing arrival of a gigantic, computer generated Buddha leads to a bittersweet final scene. A Chinese Tall Story is an oddball, inventive delight.