The Morning After
China/Hong Kong, 2018, colour, 2.35:1, 93 mins.
Directors: Luo Deng 罗登, Guo Shuang 郭爽.
Wannabe surreal comedy centred on a trio’s exotic odyssey looks good but goes nowhere.
Zhuhai city, Guangdong province, southern China, the present day. Veteran fishmonger Zhang Genya (Ge You) has arranged for a Ukrainian mail-order bride but chickens out at the last monment when he sees her at the airport. Chen Ale (Yue Yunpeng), a dolphin trainer at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, is publically dumped by his girlfriend Xiaoshu (Xi Mengyao) during a show; and Du Zhiguo (Du Chun), a security guard at the theme park, is also dumped by his latest girlfriend. The three friends drown their sorrows in drink and pass out. The next morning, Chimelong’s prize dolphin Baobao has disappeared. Zhang Genya vaguely remembers signing a despatch form for an international courier service in the middle of the night, and all three find they’re now chief suspects in the case of the missing dolphin. Attempting to follow the trail of Baobao to Vladivostok, eastern Russia, the trio end up in a rowing boat towed by a sailor friend. The boat first gets disconnected and then sinks, but the friends are rescued by pirates led by Haidao (Xiaoshenyang). Also a captive on board is an aviator (Pan Binlong) earlier seen parachuting from his plane. The pirate ship springs a leak but eventually reaches Vladivostok, where a transit-centre official (Chen He) confirms that the dolphin was sent on to the land-locked Central Asian republic of Atukaka a few hours earlier. The official arranges for them an old light aircraft which the aviator flies. After crashing in the desert, they’re arrested by Atukaka’s military and taken to meet the republic’s president (Bao Bei’er), who proudly displays Baobao in a custom-built tank. The problem, however, is that the traumatised Baobao hasn’t eaten for two days. Chen Ale helps out by calming Baobao down but the president, who wines and dines the three friends and showers them with money, refuses to let the dolphin go.
Immaculately shot in the deserts and grasslands of Inner Mongolia province, and strongly cast with a variety of Mainland comic actors, The Morning After 断片之险途夺宝 could have been an entertaining, semi-fantastic romp, as three pals go on an exotic odyssey to Central Asia to bring back a kidnapped dolphin. Instead, it ended up as one of the lamest star productions of 2018, a wannabe surreal comedy with hardly a single laugh in its 90-odd minutes and – more strikingly – a total lack of any point. Shot in 2016-17, and originally set for release in late Dec 2017, it finally emerged exactly a year later and quickly vanished after grabbing a measily RMB50 million.
It would be easy to ascribe most of the blame to scriptwriter Feng Yuan 冯媛, who’s written for comic Wen Zhang 文章 (TVD Little Daddy 小爸爸, 2013; feature film When Larry Met Mary 陆垚知马俐, 2016) as well as co-written two rom-coms (South of the Clouds 北回归线, 2014; TVD Love Actually 人间至味是清欢, 2017) with Guo Shuang 郭爽, who’s credited in the end titles of Morning as director of the Inner Mongolia-shot section. But as a surreal comedy of errors her screenplay is at least structurally okay on paper, and judging by the lead performance of veteran comic actor Ge You 葛优 it was seemingly intended to be played straightfaced, as a kind of spacey allegory about people with an extreme sense of duty.
Ge, 62, makes few enough films nowadays for his appearance in this one to be doubly mourned. As the de facto leader of a trio of friends – he, a fishmonger, plus a dolphin trainer and a security guard – who get blotto one night and find the theme park’s star attraction has been stolen from under their noses, Ge, in a mop wig and goatee, sets much of the tone with a gruff, drily humorous performance that’s right up his street. The opening scenes just manage to get by; but once the pals, now on the run as suspects, try to find the dolphin and bring it back alive, Ge’s acting authority gradually bleeds away as he becomes just one of the ensemble.
As the trio sets out in a rowing boat, is rescued by pirates, ends up in a fictional Central Asian dictatorship, and falls in with rebellious grasslanders, star guests tend to take over the movie – notably Xiaoshenyang 小沈阳 as a music-loving pirate, Chen He 陈赫 as a goofy port official in Vladivostok, Bao Bei’er 包贝尔 as the loony president of the Republic of Atukaka, and (looking as if she’s wandered onto the wrong film set) Hong Kong’s Cai Zhuoyan 蔡卓妍 [Charlene Choi] in a couple of sequences as a grassland babe who happens to speak Mandarin.
Of them all, Bao is the most amusing, as the crazed dictator who speaks comically fractured Chinese; but even his appeal soon wears off as the movie just trundles along in neutral. What seems to be missing is any real idea of how to direct dry comedy, or create an irreal sense of dislocation, as well as a fatal lack of any chemistry between the cast, each of whom performs in his own space. Of Ge’s co-stars, goody-looking Yue Yunpeng 岳云鹏 never looks comfortable as the dolphin trainer and Du Chun 杜淳 makes little impression as the security guard. Credited main director Luo Deng 罗登, a graduate of Beijing Film Academy back in 1995, has only directed one mainstream movie to date – the ho-hum rom-com Good Night 爱上试睡师 (2016), with Korean-American Dennis Oh and Mainlander Tang Jing 唐婧 – and brings nothing to the table on an interpretative level.
Luckily, Luo is surrounded by some top crew, including his younger brother Luo Pan 罗攀 (The Dead End 烈日灼心, 2015; Youth 芳华, 2017) as d.p., Guo Sida 郭思达 as musical director, Hong Kong veteran Zhang Shijie 张世杰 [Stanley Cheung] as stylist, and Liu Lei 刘磊 (The Last Woman Standing 剩者为王, 2015) and Li Nanyi 李南一 (Chongqing Hot Pot 火锅英雄, 2016) as editors. So, even when the film is just sitting there stewing in its own juices and going nowhere, it at least looks and sounds good. The sad thing is that, after a while, scenes that should be funny – such as the trio buried up to their necks while a tiger lopes around – fail to elicit any reaction from the worn-down viewer.
The film’s Chinese title could be loosely translated as “Blackout: Raiders of the Lost Dolphin”, playing on the slang term for passing out after too much drink and on a phrase used in the Chinese titles of the Indiana Jones movies. As well as various locations in Inner Mongolia province (doubling for Atukaka), shooting also took place at the real-life Chimelong Ocean Kingdom 长隆海洋王国 in Zhuhai, just across the border from Hong Kong.
Presented by Beijing Weying Technology (CN), Jiuzhou Dream Factory International Culture Communication (CN), Emperor Motion Pictures (HK), Xuzhou Saren Media (CN), Nextertainment (CN). Produced by Xuzhou Saren Media (CN).
Script: Feng Yuan. Photography: Luo Pan. Editing: Liu Lei, Li Nanyi. Music direction: Guo Sida. Production design: Li Sheng. Art direction: Fan Lijuan. Styling: Zhang Shijie [Stanley Cheung]. Sound: Gu Changning. Action: Luo Lixian [Bruce Law], Luo Yimin [Norman Law]. Visual effects: Luo Pan, Luo Weihao (Amazing Design, Different Digital Design). Executive directors: Yang Huan, Shang Jin, Qi Chunsheng.
Cast: Ge You (Zhang Genya), Yue Yunpeng (Chen Ale), Du Chun (Du Zhiguo), Cai Zhuoyan [Charlene Choi] (Nala), Bao Bei’er (Atukaka president), Xiaoshenyang (Haidao, pirate leader), Chen He (transit-centre official/Aleksandr Petrovich), Pan Binlong (aviator), Rayza (travel agent), Sun Yue (government executioner), Lv Xing (president’s secretary), Zhang Liang (Xiaoshu’s boyfriend), Xi Mengyao (Xiaoshu), Du Zhiguo (shop owner), Luo Deng (express courier).
Release: China, 29 Dec 2018; Hong Kong, tba.