Hidden Heroes (2004)
Some years ago, Wong Jing tried to pitch Nick Cheung as "the new Stephen Chiau" - an effort that failed dismally because Nick Cheung is not funny and completely lacks Chiau's trademark Charisma. Skip forward a few years and the film Dragon Loaded 2003 comes out, and people start talking about Ronald Cheng as "the new Stephen Chiau" - and I naturally avoid his films as a result. I really don't know why I decided to pick up HIDDEN HEROES in a trade, as I really didn't expect to enjoy it - but it turns out to have been a wise decision, for enjoy it I did! The "new Stephen Chiau" label fits Ronald Cheng *much* better than it ever did Nick Cheung, as he has many of the mannerisms and a style of comic delivery that will be familiar to any Chiau fan. It's easy to picture HIDDEN HEROES with Chiau in the lead role, and the film probably wouldn't be much different - or even much better!
Cheng plays Ho Yoiji (in the English subs), a cowardly, selfish and unprincipled cop who accidentally catches a major criminal, and unwittingley becomes the target of retribution from the criminal's partner. Luckily, help appears Terminator-style in the form of Charlene Choi - a robot from the future who comes to protect Ho. But there's a catch - she only plans to protect him for about a week, to make sure he dies at the "proper" time, because his timely death is important for the development of events in the future. Ho naturally doesn't see this deal as being quite what he wants, so he ends up on the run from the criminals and Miss Terminator - and when he's framed for a murder the cops are soon on his tail too. His only hope seems to be a young criminal called Mei Ling (Choi, again), who happens to be the woman on whom the robot from the future was modelled!
It's certainly not a simple story, and the script willfully indulges in convolution of a comical nature. It's one of those "anything goes" sort of films that only Hong Kong produces - and I'd forgotten just how much fun that can be! The film doesn't go so far into the Mo Lei Tau of older Chiau films that might see the characters breaking into opera or conducting an awards ceremony mid-film, but it definitely doesn't look like concerns like realism or "making sense" bother it too much. Everything is played for laughs, and they are effectively induced on numerous occasions.
It's not the sort of film where "acting" is particularly important, and most of the cast ham it up cheerfully. Here's where Cheng proves himself to be more Chiau than Cheung - his natural charisma and expressiveness carries his character and makes him plausible despite the ridiculousness of events, in a way that traditional "acting" probably couldn't do.
The supporting cast are a mixed bag in this film, with some older actors like Yuen Wah and Bonnie Wong more accustomed to the HK style of "performance" acting and fitting easily into the spirit of the film, whilst younger cast members like Raymond Wong and Charlene Choi are more awkward in their parts. Choi in particular struggles with the scenes in which she's playing her robotic form - she basically imitates robotic emotionlessness by wearing a fixed smile and moving a little stiffly. Sadly this just comes across as bad acting. She is much better and more convincing as a human - which I suppose is a relief!
Speaking of Choi, this is another of those films where she's an object of (reciprocated) sexual desire for a significantly older man. I know neither of the Twins are teenagers anymore, but whilst Gillian has matured into a young woman, Charlene still comes across like a sassy schoolgirl (an impression not helped by her outfit when she first appears in this film!). It's hence somewhat creepy seeing scenes where she is acting in a sexual way (even though it's only innuendo). In short, Choi probably wasn't the best choice for the role, but I can't think of anyone specific I'd rather have seen, and you can't blame the film-makers for exploiting her ability to get "bums on seats". Raymond Wong is also a little miscast (he's a fine actor but not a comic), and Qin Hailu has little meat in her role but is lucky that she gets to play her character straight throughout (as I don't think she'd be able to handle comedy well either).
The film is co-directed by Joe Ma and Cheang Pou-Soi, who made a very good impression on me with Love Battlefield in the same year. The teaming is very effective, with Joe Ma's knack for characterisation and comedy complementing Cheang's gift for atmosphere and visual style. The film is very slick, with excellent camerawork and editing, and some pretty good special effects work. It feels like quite a high-budget film, though in truth I'm sure it was medium-sized at best. The team is clearly an effective one, and I look forward to more from them in future. Right now, I guess I'm going to have to pick up DRAGON LOADED and the other films Ronald Cheng has done since :)