Virtual Recall took seven months to travel from China to Hong Kong cinemas, but once you’ve seen the film, you may wonder why they even bothered. A sci-fi mystery thriller with generous portions of existentialism, eroticism and that inestimable thing called “WTF,” this is a movie that should only be seen if you love the stars, hate yourself or have a stalwart group of friends who enjoy watching bad cinema with you. If that last description applies to you, then congratulations: Virtual Recall should be scheduled for your next gathering pronto. Really, Virtual Recall is so hilariously bad that it should be stocked in the comedy section of your local video store. Next to some forties and the kegs.
Tang Yi-Fei (the cat mutant from Future X-Cops) stars as Dr. Xiao Tingqin, a psychologist who’s much more screwed up than her patients. She has issues with her husband, awesome policeman Zhen Shanlin (Stephen Fung), and won’t let him touch her despite their upcoming one-year wedding anniversary. Tinqin also has problems forgetting her first love Ji Lu (TVB star Sammul Chan), who perished tragically in a hilarious scene straight out of Fit Lover. Making matters worse, her main patient Sum Liu-Sheung (Cherrie Ying) is wickedly insane and offers to lend Tinqin a gun, which is kept in Sum’s bungalow at the swank Yee Low Mental Sanatorium. Mentally disturbed inmates with handguns are apparently common in Hong Kong, China or the illogical fantasyland that the film takes place in.
It’s Sum who initiates Tingqin’s personal journey, first persuading her to play Russian Roulette and then convincing her of the existence of parallel universes. Thanks to bizarre pseudo-science the film claims is endorsed by Stephen Hawking, a person can travel to alternate universes with really intense meditation, whereupon their body will digitize and float through wormholes via visual effects rendered on the Commodore Amiga. Tingqin initially scoffs at this, but soon she's de-rezzing and hopping dimensions to see what life is like if she didn't do this thing, or did this other thing instead of that thing she actually did. It's like Sliding Doors but with crappy acting and occasional bursts of Thai kickboxing. Will Tingqin solve her issues, find her correct universe and finally make out with Sum like their touchy-feely therapy sessions imply that they might?
The answers to those questions are all disappointing ones, which would mean more if Virtual Recall managed to convince. But the film never does that, so the disappointment is both unfortunate and oddly appropriate. Virtual Recall is based on a 2006 novel that’s hopefully a lot better than its screen adaptation. The script possesses outlandish and unconvincing sci-fi ideas, plus some mind-numbing existential hokum, but even something this silly might work with the proper handling. There’s a suitable mystery and built-in secrets to satisfy fans of mindbending thrillers, but Larry Cheung’s direction is so clunky and inept that the only defense against his brain-sapping filmmaking is to view the whole thing as intentional farce. Cheung’s idea of direction is the occasional triple-zoom onto Tang Yi-Fei’s face plus multiple montages that resemble music videos you might catch at a Neway karaoke joint. There are also flashbacks within flashbacks. This movie has it all.
The badness doesn’t stop there. Visual effects in Virtual Recall are both terrible and terribly conceived, resembling a bad infomercial handled by the effects team for Doctor Who - and I mean the seventies incarnation starring Tom Baker. This film has people floating through space in bubbles. Bubbles! Music is a combination of crappy synth, cheesy pop and odd saxophone riffs from late night Cinemax. Rounding everything out is the acting, which is entertaining in its sheer lousiness. Both Cherrie Ying and Tang Yi-Fei overact, but both do so sexily - especially Tang, who offers one of those “daring” performances the Chinese press are so quick to publicize. That means cleavage, PG-13 love scenes and even some exposed flesh. For Chinese cinema, this stuff is so rare that we should mention it like it matters. About the movie itself, the less said the better. (Kozo, 2011)