|Jeff Lau is one amazing filmmaker - not because his films are always great, but because he attempts ambitious and emotional movies using random gags, screechy overacting, rampant slapstick and more navel-gazing romantic metaphor than should be allowed in any film. Lau's films feature little consistency and less sense, plus they've become increasingly intertextual, requiring that you see his other films and their inspirations to fully grasp what he's doing. Thatís a tall order for any moviegoer, especially in service of a director who superficially resembles Wong Jing. However, Lau's lofty themes, unabashed romanticism and strong character arcs make his films beguiling and even touching, ultimately setting him apart from Hong Kong comedy directors who populate the shallow end of the pool. Simply put: thereís more to a Jeff Lau film than meets the eye. For better or worse.
So here we are at East Meets West, Lauís latest crazy opus. Originally billed as Eagle Shooting Heroes 2011, and indeed featuring a punned Chinese language title referencing the classic Louis Cha text, East Meets West is a bizarre postmodernist tale of fate, karma and love, sweet love. Seven reincarnated immortals are about to experience their once-a-generation evolution from average folks to super-powered gods, just in time to meet fellow immortal and former comrade-in-arms Yaksha. Once upon a time, the eight were members of the Eight Heavenly Dragons, immortals tasked with inspiring humankind, but Yaksha went bad and slaughtered his buddies. This cycle has been going on for
millennia, and now that the seven good immortals are meeting up again, Yaksha canít be far behind. Can the seven immortals beat Yaksha this time? Can goddess Ashura (Karen Mok) balance her divine responsibility with an attraction to the mortal Mr. Charles (Eason Chan)? And can Jeff Lau mount this elaborate fantasy convincingly?
To answer that last question: no, Jeff Lau can't, but it's arguable if he even tries. East Meets West has two major plotlines: the struggle between the seven immortals and Yaksha, and also the burgeoning romance between Ashura and Charles. Of the two plots, only the second is handled coherently. Ashura is first seen in her human form, Sammi, and she's an over-pierced goth chick who doesnít believe in love or marriage. Sammi's father is Kenny Bee, former Wynners band member, and heís played by, um, Kenny Bee. Charles wants to mount a Wynners reunion concert, and when harassing Bee he meets Sammi, who's immediately smitten by the coldly debonair Charles. He doesn't return the feeling until she saves him as Ashura, leading to the convoluted dynamic of a girl loving a guy who loves someone else thatís actually her but he doesn't know that while she does. Really, that makes sense. Despite the craziness of it all, their relationship is surprisingly affecting.
When it comes to immortals vs. Yaksha story, things are murkier. Lau sets up his characters before explaining their heavenly backstory, and by then the assault of random jokes, screwy characters, generous montage and pretentious pauses could alienate. The immortals are all exceptionally wacky, with few straight men to provide balance for audiences. Their heavenly origin is explained via voiceover, animated montage, exposition and even more jokes, all set to a pace that's generously pushed to eleven. Then, after becoming gods, the group becomes a media sensation, leading to minor satire and even more jokes per second. All of this can be tiring. Lauís narrative is riddled with non-sequitur gags, plus thereís no rising action or narrative flow, so getting involved can be a difficult. This dense, manic storytelling is pretty much business as usual for Jeff Lau, so if his films have turned you off before, this one wonít change things. East Meets West is tough to take on a one-off viewing as thereís so much going on Ė and itís all shoved out there so quickly Ė that itís easy to get lost.
However, patience and understanding (and maybe a second viewing) do yield rewards. The screwy characters provide plenty for the actors to work with. Besides Sammi and Bee, the immortals consist of mute chef Da Xiong (the likable Ekin Cheng), who has the power to trap bad guys in large xiao long bao; heiress Jade (singer Tan Weiwei), who wants to rock instead of going to college; Jadeís assistant Bing (a very funny Jaycee Chan), whoís actually a toady for her stern father (singer-producer Jonathan Lee); bizarre cab driver Wen (a surprising William So), who hails from Foshan (Like Ip Man!) and practices method acting while driving; and Bee's wife Scarlet (the sexy, vampish Huang Yi), who likes to wear nosebleed-inducing cosplay. Stephy Tang is delightfully devilish as a green-haired bad girl, and Eason Chan and Karen Mok sell the filmís romance with gravity and grace. More than anything, the entire cast is self-effacing, never acting as if theyíre above Lauís crazy comedy or pretentious romance. Who knows how, but Jeff Lau does knows how to get actors to cut loose.
The willingness of Lau's actors to embrace his full-tilt wackiness is one of East Meets West's joys, and they're aided by creatively crazy costume design and gorgeously lurid art direction. Lau's hit-to-miss ratio on jokes is maybe 2-to-1, but that increases if audiences get the total sum of what he's doing, from skewering his actors (Kenny Bee's portrayal of himself is scathing) to referencing old works (again, Lau references his own and also Wong Kar-Waiís films) to recycling the themes of love and destiny that have been Lau's bread-and-butter over the past fifteen years. The time and energy spent pushing love can get overbearing and long-winded (especially during the filmís drawn out climax), but thanks to the arresting imagery and romantic devices Lau employs, thereís an undeniable attraction too. Lauís obsession with existential love isnít just in the script Ė it can be seen in the music, cinematography and even wordless gazes from the actors. Thereís craft and thought in all this Jeff Lau nonsense.
Does all the above make East Meets West excellent for audiences everywhere? Well, itís hard to qualify it as such, as the film is, like most of Jeff Lau's work, an acquired taste. Lauís films are great for fans of nonsense comedy, but they also speak for a bygone age of movies that are, well, bygone. Audiences have changed since Lauís heyday, and it may be hard for them to fully appreciate what makes Lauís films special. Jeff Lau makes more than nonsense Ė he makes literate, informed nonsense thatís smarter and more ambitious than the genre implies. Similarly, Jeff Lau is more than just another Hong Kong comedy director. Jeff Lau is imaginative and unpredictable, and uses comedy for more than quick laughs or reactionary parody. Most of all, Jeff Lau makes movies about love, and even when the movies are bad or dismissed, he continues to make them. Believe it or not, like it or not, Jeff Lau is an auteur. And East Meets West, as impenetrable and flawed as it is, should be considered among Jeff Lauís most representative works. (Kozo, 2011)