Film review: Chinese Odyssey / Tian xia wu shuang

21 January 2004


Pulled for speeding, a terrible thing to happen to a bravo She's talking about how a wife should be cherished, while her putative wife stands behind The real effects of all that dramatic swirling wind

I understand that there's a whole genre of Hong Kong Chinese films like this ("mo lei tow"), and indeed that to some extent this is a parody of some of them (particularly the work of Wong Kar Wai, who produces here). But this is the only one I've seen.

If you have seen any HK films, you've almost certainly met the steadfast Tony Leung before; in the films that have got out to the West, he's usually ended up with second billing. Here he's unambiguously the lead, in this light-hearted but surprisingly intense comedy/romance story.

It's Ming Dynasty China. The Emperor (Chang Chen) and his sister (the lovely Faye Wong) flee from the palace which is ruled by the Queen Mother. The Emperor doesn't get far, but his sister meets Li Yilong (Leung), a bravo who keeps a restaurant with his sister Phoenix (Vicki Zhao). Unfortunately, the princess has a penchant for dressing in men's clothes, and while she's falling for Li, he's trying to set her up with Phoenix...

In a way it's almost Shakespearean in the way sexual disguises are assumed to be perfect. But this is not a film of one genre; the comedy, while it's maintained, shades rapidly into drama, which can be disconcerting for the Western viewer used to the more formal constraints of the mainstream Hollywood film. The romances run into the inevitable problems, both locally and back at the Imperial Palace, and in spite of the comedic elements there's a strong sense of tension.

And there are freeze-frames and slow-motion sections; there are martial arts duels (including one where the combatants are moving in slow motion, while the world moves at normal speed around them), though not all that many of them; there are musical numbers; it's insanity piled on insanity, strung together on a thread of melodrama.

I don't know why or how, but it works.