A Stupid Journey
China, 2014, colour, 2.35:1, 92 mins.
Director: Zhuo Yuan 卓原 [Jiang Zhuoyuan 蒋卓原].
Goofy costume comedy is well played by the whole cast but not quite fully realised.
Bianjing [modern-day Kaifeng], northern China, c. AD 1125, the final years of the Northern Song dynasty. After failing to get on in life because of his humble origins, the ambitious Situ Yaozu (Zheng Kai) has travelled south across the Yellow River to the capital to try his luck. On his first day there he antagonises Zhang Dingding (Sun Jian), son of an influential government official, Zhang Erhe (Yin Zhusheng), by making him publically apologise to a singing girl, Wang Erya (Pan Zhilin). Later, he finds his neighbour in his shabby lodgings is Zhang Dingding, trying to make a go of it on his own – though still with a male servant, Wang Cui (Yu Silu), who’s actually a young woman in male clothes though Zhang Dingding is too stupid to realise it. After failing the imperial martial-arts exam, he drowns his sorrows with Wang Erya, who also considers herself a failure, and the two bond. By chance Situ Yaozu ends up being adopted by Zhang Erhe – which also makes him a future son-in-law of the emperor (Luo Jiaying). Zhang Dingding becomes jealous, but Situ Yaozu soon finds out that Zhang Erhe only adopted him to represent the family in dangerous sitautions and thus protect the life of his real son. Impressing the emperor at a display of swordsmanship, Situ Yaozu is told that, in order to marry an imperial princess, he must first travel south to Dali and rescue two other princesses that have been kidnapped. He sets out with two corrupt government lackeys who try to kill him. He’s rescued by Wang Erya, who’s decided to throw up her job and follow in Situ Yaozu’s footsteps. They’re later joined by Zhang Dingding (with Wang Cui) but the two men immediately start trying to double-cross each other, and are also pursued by imperial assassins.
The first film of Mainland writer-director Jiang Zhuoyuan 蒋卓原, A Stupid Journey 江湖论剑实录 is mainly worth noting in light of his subsequent Fist & Faith 青禾男高 (2017), a more fully realised expression of his parodistic talent. But it does have some merits of its own. A goofy costume comedy, set 12th-century China, about an ambitious wannabe who comes to the big city and becomes entangled with a singing girl, a rich man’s spoilt son and the latter’s cross-dressing servant, it provides a meaty leading role for Zheng Kai 郑凯, then starting to strike out from cocky roles in rom-coms (the film was released between his EX-Files 前任攻略 and Fleet of Time 勿勿那年, both 2014), and shows an offbeat humour that the then 30-year-old Jiang and his co-writer, Shanghai-born Gu Feifei 顾斐斐, were to develop in a more sophisticated way in Fist & Faith. The film made little impression at the Mainland box office (RMB11 million).
Sporting a silly Afro-style wig, Zheng shows a gift for blank-faced comedy as his rural wannabe quickly rises up the ladder in the capital (then Bianjing, modern-day Kaifeng, in the Northern Song dynasty), only to find he’s being exploited by an influential bigwig. Apart from a few laugh-out-loud moments (such as the spitting llamas), the screenplay is not especially funny on paper; its humour springs from the cast’s blank delivery and double-takes, with actors like Yin Zhusheng 尹铸胜 excellent as the nonsense-talking bigwig and Hong Kong veteran Luo Jiaying 罗家英 [Law Kar-ying] ditto as the pleasure-loving, stupid emperor. The main burden, however, is shared between Zheng, boyish-looking actor Sun Jian 孙坚 (who catches the comic spirit as the spoilt fu erdai) and TV actresses Pan Zhilin 潘之琳 (who gives her singing girl some emotional depth) and Yu Silu 余思潞 (good as a feisty tomboy in drag).
Jiang shows no sense of visual style, with the camera often moving back and forth to follow the dialogue, though the film is technically solid. The narrative is broken up with windowboxed inserts of characters talking directly to camera, processed in drained colour. It’s one of those films where you can feel the maker starting to flex his muscles but not quite achieving everything he wants.
Presented by Western Movie Group (CN), Beijing Herun Media (CN), Shanghai Inlook Media (CN), Beijing Power International Entertainment (CN), Sova Shangying (Shanghai) Partnership (CN), Zhejiang Xingrun Jiaye Media (CN).
Script: Jiang Zhuoyuan, Gu Feifei. Photography: Wang Yumeng. Editing: Qian Fang. Music: Liu Mengyao. Art direction: Zhao Yu. Styling: Wang Yi. Sound: Xiong Yi.
Cast: Zheng Kai (Situ Yaozu), Sun Jian (Zhang Dingding), Pan Zhilin (Wang Erya), Yu Silu (Wang Cui/Cai Cui), Wu Ma (Situ Guangzong), Luo Jiaying [Law Kar-ying] (Huizong, emperor), Li Jianren (county magistrate), Wang Xun (rental agent), He Yunwei (Gao Ren, old master), Yin Zhusheng (Zhang Erhe, Zhang Dingding’s father), Yang Haoyu (county magistrate), Gao Baobao (brothel madame), Xia Jiawei (Zhang Dawei), Cai Die (Li Jingxiang, beauty in street), Chen Zheng (security officer), Jing Hao (Liu Sibian), Jiang Zhuoyuan (no. 2 imperial son-in-law).
Release: China, 15 Aug 2014.