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La Comédie Humaine

La Comedie Humaine

Chapman To, Wong Cho-Lam and a turtle in La Comedie Humaine.

Chinese: 人間喜劇  
Year: 2010
Director: Chan Hing-Kai, Janet Chun Siu-Jan
Writer: Chan Hing-Kai, Janet Chun Siu-Jan
Cast: Chapman To Man-Chat, Wong Cho-Lam, Hui Siu-Hung, Fiona Sit Hoi-Kei, Kama, Lee Lik-Chee, C. Kwan, Maggie Li, Tsui Tin-Yau, Wong Yau-Nam, Law Wing-Cheong, Soi Cheang Pou-Soi, Carl Ng Ka-Lung, Derek Kwok Chi-Kin, Dada Chen, Sammy Sum Chun-Hin
The Skinny: Poorly paced and sometimes frustratingly postmodern, La Comédie Humaine still succeeds thanks to fine moments and a love of cinema that's hard to resist. One of the more special Hong Kong films this year.
by Kozo:
Writer-director Chan Hing-Ka has never excelled at pacing his films, and La Comédie Humaine follows suit. This surreal buddy comedy about a Mainland hitman and a Hong Kong screenwriter features reams of postmodern cinema-skewering gags, many quite funny and all stretched out to egregious lengths. There are some quick-hit gags among the bunch, but by and large the film's jokes are lengthy and require thought, initially engaging before sometimes becoming plodding. Worse, the story loses momentum and begins to feel aimless. The caveat to all of this? That La Comédie Humaine is a creative and surprisingly affecting Hong Kong film. It's not for everyone - especially non-fans of Cantonese comedy or those with an aversion to Chan Hing-Ka's forced existentialism - but La Comédie Humaine qualifies as one of the more special Hong Kong films of 2010.

Chapman To stars as Spring, a Mainland hitman and movie buff who arrives in Hong Kong with partner Setting Sun (Hui Siu-Hung). Immediately, the two get separated, and Spring takes to waiting on a rooftop for Setting Sun to show. However, he gets sick and somehow falls under the care of screenwriter Soya (Wong Cho-Lam), who nurses him back to health in thorough and thoroughly annoying fashion. The gags here are broad and sometimes homoerotic, with overdone performances (Chapman To's faux mainland accent is a highlight) and some hilarious and also potentially disturbing moments - especially one where the audience gets a good long look at Chapman To's naked body (Yikes!!). Then the movie parodies settle in. One gag, where Spring uses movie titles to tell his personal story, is an especially funny one, but it also stretches on for an eternity. At this point, the film has provided some smart jokes, but still hasn't yet found its narrative footing.

That problem continues. Spring privately wants to kill Soya because he's so annoying, but his murderous intent is more running gag than an actual storyline. Instead, the film introduces Tin-Oi (Fiona Sit), the ex-girlfriend of Soya -- and their story is an epic in and of itself. Flashbacks detail Soya and Tin-Oi's repetitive but ultimately charming courtship, made all the more beguiling by Fiona Sit's sweet and even lovable performance. However, Tin-Oi has a dark side, namely she becomes dangerously neurotic when faced with the adverse possibilities inherent in love. In plain English, love makes her into a raging madwoman filled with jealousy, regret, and sometimes violence - and the target of her ire is none other than her own boyfriend. There's good material here that manages some truth about relationships but the storyline takes center stage for far too long, essentially sidelining Chapman To and making the audience wonder just where the movie is going.

No matter - the film pulls the same trick again, sending Wong Cho-Lam and Fiona Sit to the bench for another plotline where Spring helps the young and pregnant Maggie Chan (Kama Lo) with a planned hit before the two wander all over Hong Kong talking in a could-be-but-not-quite-romantic way. The highlight of this storyline: Chapman To's impressions of Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, plus even more jokes that stretch on more than they have to. Meanwhile, Soya brings Spring with him to meet a film director (Lee Lik-Chee) who's making a film about some assassins, leading to some smart skewering of hitman movie tropes. Also, the flim's "real" hitman storyline is due for a reckoning, with Setting Sun and also a detective (Carl Ng at his smarmy best) closing in on Spring and Soya. Parodies of John Woo and Johnnie To (the final tongue-in-cheek shootout is something that To could have tried to pass off as ironic and cool) occur along with resolutions to the romantic storylines and a denouement that would never work in anything remotely realistic - ah, just what the hell is going on in La Comédie Humaine? Are the filmmakers even trying to make a normal, logical motion picture with a beginning, middle and end?

Probably not, actually. Chan Hing-Ka's twenty-first century work has largely been about concepts forced into films, with characterization, random shtick or undue metaphor intended to carry the whole thing. La Comédie Humaine is very much the same, and has a story structure that should never be accepted by any professor of screenwriting. However, the film quietly surpasses Chan and Chun's other recent works, and even manages a few surprises along the way. Chapman To and Wong Cho-Lam are ace comedians, managing to find solid emotions beneath the omnipresent and sometimes annoying shtick. One of the best surprises is Fiona Sit, whose character is a "Sassy Girl" archetype minus the generous explanation of her insanity. It's a tough role to pull off, and could easily have backfired on her, but Sit knocks it out of the park, making a clearly unbalanced girl into a sympathetic and lovable one - and she does it without the benefit of much screentime. If La Comédie Humaine becomes best known for reminding us that Sit has talent, that wouldn't be such a bad legacy.

The film does more - though actually describing that "more" is not an easy task. The references to local issues and pop culture certainly help, but what La Comédie Humaine excels most in is its moments, many of which incisively reveal enjoyable and affecting emotions specific to the cinema. Friendship, brotherhood, love and movies are both skewered and celebrated, and the actors are funny, game and even successful in their dramatic moments. There are rough spots of course; the lack of a proper narrative makes the film a bit of a chore to follow, and the performances can grate on those with low tolerance for Cantonese-style cuteness. However, the film entertains and even touches such that its final surreal moments don't confound as much as they reward, clueing the audience in on how the film really is an exercise in cinema love. Despite its uneven tones, mystifying narrative structure, and sometimes overdone gags, La Comédie Humaine surprisingly works. It may lack in the filmmaking department, but something winning and even magical appears from within. Nowadays, you probably can't ask for more from a Hong Kong movie. (Kozo, Reviewed at the Udine Far East Film Festival, 2010)


DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

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image credit: Udine Far East Film Festival Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen