Letís Go! Where? To see the new Wong Ching-Po movie! Stop the presses, because Wong Ching-Po, the director behind overrated triad thriller Jiang Hu, overwrought exploitation flick Revenge a Love Story and simply awful gang drama Ah Sou has made a good film. At least Letís Go! is entertaining and better than Wongís most recent efforts, and uses his pretentious filmmaking style in an unexpectedly funny and subversive way. Wong Ching-Po is a decidedly serious director and Letís Go! is a categorically silly movie. Combine those two logically opposed factors and the resulting product is a strange and also fun flick that simultaneously reveres and sends up the tokusatsu (live-action Japanese superhero) genre. Thereís an acquired taste to this sort of thing, but those inclined should be tickled.
Juno Mak produces and stars as Lee Siu-Sheung, a simple but tough cha chaan teng employee who somehow becomes a superhero. He and his father (Lam Ka-Wah) were both huge fans of mecha anime Space Emperor God Sigma and its titular hero, a righteous robot that resulted from the combination of three smaller vehicles (Note: foreshadowing!). Siu-Sheungís father died while trying to play hero but Siu-Sheung still has the justice jones, and honors both his father and God Sigma by slapping around bullies. Heís also the unofficial captain of the ďEarth Guard,Ē a supposed justice squad that features dopey loser Big Bird (Wen Chao, an actor famous for his Stephen Chow soundalike voice) as a core member. The duo doesnít really do any crimefighting, but itís a nice dream to have between delivering fried rice and milk tea to the denizens of their public housing estate.
Siu-Sheung gets a vocation change when he impresses gangster Tai Muk (Ken Lo) and lands a security job with Tai Mukís boss Hon Yu (Jimmy Wang Yu). Siu-Sheung has the martial arts skills to be a gang bossí bodyguard, plus heís willing to leap into danger whenever itís necessary. That latter trait endears him to Hon Yuís daughter Annie (Stephy Tang playing a bad or at least a naughty girl), but it also makes him less popular with Hon Yuís other security guys, led by the serious and supposedly honorable Shing (Gordon Lam). Thereís actually friction going on between Shingís guys (Chin Siu-Ho, Tony Ho, Kenny Wong and Vincent Sze) and Hon Yu, leading to an expected falling out that occurs in surprisingly violent fashion. Meanwhile, Siu-Sheung experiences his own fall, but thatís cool, because now he can rise up, take back his pride and deliver a blow for justice. While wearing a white jumpsuit and silly white helmet.
Itís easy to see how the ad wizards came up with this one. Letís Go! is a postmodern superhero movie about people who become superheroes because they were fans of superheroes — or a super robot, namely the iconic Toei animation creation God Sigma. The Cantonese-dubbed Space Emperor God Sigma show featured a theme song from Leslie Cheung, so that's extra nostalgia factor right there. Basing the film on tokusatsu is a smart trick, as it allows the filmmakers to eschew all logic and drop new plot holes every five seconds. It makes no sense that a supposed believer in justice like Siu-Sheung would go work for a gang boss, but that's what he does. Likewise, Siu-Sheung's super-strength appears out of nowhere, and many other developments and details (like Stephy Tang's inexplicable character) are cheesy and totally baseless. If someone in this film owned a talking sea monkey and had magical fart powers, it wouldnít be all that weird.
Unfortunately, Wong canít keep his straight-faced silliness consistent. The first and the third acts are loaded to the gills with random but amusing asides, some referencing the filmís inspiration (at one point, Siu-Sheung hangs out with an imaginary God Sigma robot) and some not (Stephy Tang speaking terrible English). However, the middle portion goes punishingly melodramatic, as Shing rises to become the filmís super bad guy and Siu-Sheung bottoms out. The narrative follows a familiar zero-to-hero formula and nimbly checks off the required events, but Wong adds his own stylistic spin, relying on pronounced noir lighting, punishing action sequences and overdone melodramatics that border on self-parody. Even at its darkest, Letís Go! needs to wink at or laugh with its audience. Wong makes an admirable effort to stretch his directorial image, but heís still too stiff to mix laughs and tears effectively.
While convincing physically, Juno Mak is too distant and too cold a performer to properly engage the audience. Luckily, his co-stars help him out. As his mother, Pat Ha charmingly brings out Makís vulnerable side, and Stephy Tang is welcome despite being completely and perhaps deliberately unconvincing. Wen Chao essays the dopey sidekick role to an appropriately amusing hilt, while Malaysian singer Gary Chaw possesses an oddly successful charisma as a mysterious figure who shadows Siu-Sheung. Gordon Lamís turn as the heinous villain is also a highlight, partially due to the characterís affectations (Shing spends the second half of the film either torturing people or eating meat intensely in front of a stone carving of his own head) and also through Lamís ability to make his character both sinister and even sympathetic. Shing ends up as a super-bad bastard, but when we first meet him heís just a guy who takes himself too seriously. Oddly, of all the people in the film, Shing may have the most complete character arc.
Budget here is not high, but the filmmakers do the best with what theyíve got. Wongís noir lighting helps hide some production design issues, with empty parking garages and warehouses being the settings du jour. The use of a public housing estate is a real plus, however, grounding the film in both its working-class attitude and also its Hong Kong roots. Overall, Letís Go! works for initiated audiences, i.e. those who immediately hear about a tokusatsu homage and say, ďWow, that sounds great!Ē The film should be a hit among genre fans thanks to its postmodern fan-baiting; heck, just the credits — an updated version of the God Sigma anime opening — should earn immediate and unwavering goodwill. Regular moviegoers may be less friendly, and could find this meta genre geekery to be beneath them. But the film has smart intentions, a fun spirit and even some unexpected heart. Letís Go! deserves a chance and Wong Ching-Po does too. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2011)