In Just Another Pandora's Box, everything old is new again - even if you don't quite know where you've seen it before. Director Jeff Lau directs this cameo-a-minute costume comedy that parodies many films, most of them also directed by Jeff Lau. The biggest non-Lau films to get skewered: Titanic and especially Red Cliff, with the latter providing the basis for the plot. Lau's trademark postmodern romance and self-referential jokes also return, and combine with sight gags and anachronisms to help make Just Another Pandora's Box creative and surprising. That is, when everything isn't weighed down by the aimless, momentum-killing story. Like most nonsense comedies, Just Another Pandora's Box is a hit and miss affair that depends largely on audience knowledge and goodwill to make it a success. If all else fails, you can simply play "spot the star".
The plot is relatively simple, not that it makes everything more coherent. Ronald Cheng is Qing Ye Se, a wandering thief who mugs immortal Rose (Betty Sun) in the film's opening moments. However, he's tricked by another wanderer (Lee Lik-Chee, dressed like Stephen Chow in Chinese Odyssey) into unsheathing Rose's sword, which marks him as her fated true love. Nonplussed, he flees only to have her chase like a madwoman. Luckily, Qing runs into King Bull (Wang Xue-Bin) and a couple of immortals (Johnnie Kong and director Jeff Lau reprising their roles from Chinese Odyssey) fighting, and makes off with their Pandora's Box (called the "Moonlight Box" in the film's subtitles). In just the first ten minutes, Jeff Lau has already mined his own films heavily (the Pandora's Box was a big plot device in - you guessed it - A Chinese Odyssey), from characters to costumes to images. Even the film's opening shot is a direct lift from another work.
With the arrival of the Pandora's Box, Lau turns his parodies mercilessly towards Red Cliff. The Pandora's Box sends Qing hurtling through time to the Three Kingdoms era, where everyone mistakes him for Zhao Zilong. After some skirmishes with Cao Cao (Guo De-Gang), who confiscates the Pandora's Box, Qing ends up in the camp of Liu Bei (Yuen Biao), where he meets comic versions of the Red Cliff cast, including Eric Tsang as Zhuge Liang, Huang Bo as Zhou Yu and Gillian Chung as Sun Shang-Xiang. The Battle of Red Cliff approaches, but Qing is assigned to guard a visiting diplomat who looks like Gigi Leung, but is actually Rose in disguise. Having followed Qing through time, Rose is determined to win his love, but Qing schemes to steal the Pandora's Box back from Cao Cao so he can escape to somewhere else in time leaving both the Three Kingdoms AND Rose behind. Random chaos ensues.
"Random" is a good way to describe Just Another Pandora's Box. Jeff Lau parodies a host of films here, including Kung Fu Hustle, Kung Fu Panda, The Promise and, most distressingly, Titanic. Betty Sun's character is named "Rose", someone actually says, "you jump, I jump", and there's an extended gag mixing Titanic and Chinese Odyssey together. Not all of Lau's parodies are easy to process; some are direct lifts, but others are clever reversals, and Lau changes up his ideas so quickly that the film becomes a game of "spot the reference, and figure out what Lau is doing with it." The references sometimes puzzle more than they amuse, as the Jeff Lau canon could hardly be called required text. More laughs come from lowbrow gags, like ugly women, swearing peasants and a baby whose urine is used like a bazooka. Nods to modern issues like the 2008 China Olympics, the China milk powder controversy and even Gillian Chung's 2008 media scandal also show up, which should score better with the masses than Lau's self-indulgent parodies.
Lau's romantic storyline is also indulgent; the Qing-Rose love story is given massive build up, and climaxes in yet another extended parody of Chinese Odyssey. Ronald Cheng is a fine actor though, mixing his serious and snide personalities such that the emotions sometimes do affect. Betty Sun surprises here, the Fearless actress showing a looser, more endearing comic side than the more accomplished Gigi Leung. Jeff Lau has always tried mixing ardent romance with pronounced silliness, but without a driving story, the romance lags. Lau's best work builds the romance and comedy simultaneously, using both towards solving the film's larger conflict. The film's main Red Cliff-skewering plot doesn't combine those elements well, and is driven by random gags similar to what you would find in a Scary Movie film. Jeff Lau has certainly done better work, though it should be noted that Just Another Pandora's Box is a lot better than Lau's previous Kung Fu Cyborg: Metallic Attraction. Most movies are.
Where Just Another Pandora's Box succeeds is with the massive cast, which provides plenty of spot-the-star fun. Seeing Alex Fong Lik-Sun as a horny Guan Yu is good for giggles, as is Fan Siu-Wong's spot-on Zhang Fei. Patrick Tam, Stephy Tang, and Huang Bo all do decent work, and the cameos by the long-missed stars Ada Choi and Athena Chu are good ones. The actresses essay the same characters that they did in A Chinese Odyssey, making their scenes noteworthy for their presence, if not the actual content. The film even features onscreen titles identifying each actor, just like those star-packed Shaw Brothers films of old. Just Another Pandora's Box is more for initiated audiences - the people who know all the stars, have seen a ton of films, and understand the cultural references - than anyone who might show up only to see a Red Cliff parody. If you belong to that latter audience, Just Another Pandora's Box may be a tough nut to crack. Hint: see all of Jeff Lau's movies first. Memorizing exactly what happens in them helps too. (Kozo 2010)