China, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 90 mins.
Directors: Guo Fan 郭帆, Li Yang 李阳.
Ambitious but failed attempt at a live-action version of a cult animated short.
China, the present day. Office worker Li Xianji (Fang Zuming) is a computer-gaming geek who has suffered from “timing disorder” ever since he was a child during the early 1980s. In the mid-1990s he was getting poor marks at school and had started to become obsessed with computer games, much to the anger of his father (Jiang Wu). His disorder got worse, to a point where he felt out of sync with the world. The only one who understood him was the beautiful Wang Qian (Wang Ziwen), who also suffered from the same disorder. They planned to marry, but one night she was knocked down and killed by a lorry, leaving Li Xianji feeling loveless. Now, in the present, Li Xianji gets the opportunity, via a disc left to him by his late uncle (Yao Lu), a science nut, to return in time via several adventures and find Wang Qian again. It’s a journey Li Xianji is determined to make, even at the cost of selling his kidney and becoming mixed up with some shady types. The question is whether Wang Qian will be the same person he remembered, and whether they will still share the same love or the same disorder.
A hugely ambitious mixture of live action, animation, and a storyline that’s only comprehensible at some kind of medicated level, Lee’s Adventure 李献计历险记 is a fascinating but ultimately failed attempt to expand a cult animated short to live-action feature length. Hong Kong’s Fang Zuming 房祖名 [Jaycee Chan] convincingly incarnates modern-day Beijing computer geek Li Xianji – a kind of dopey hero for the game-playing generation – but as an actor he lacks the screen heft to carry a production of this kind, especially when fettered in a role that doesn’t require much more of him than to look lost, confused and loveless among all the impressive visual effects.
Two-and-a-half years in the making, the original 20-minute cartoon of the same name was the work of Li Yang 李阳 (under the alias “Excellent Young Pilot” 年轻懮秀的飞行员) and went online in 2009, to huge cult appeal. Using everything from fairly conventional drawn animation to found footage and cut-out effects, it’s a wild ride into the imagination of a computer geek with a dislocated sense of time and reality, vaguely searching for a lost love who once understood him. Carrying a voice-over in a heavy Beijing accent, it stirs pop-culture references from East to West into a heady mix.
For the feature-film version, Li created new animation sequences to insert into the live action, working with commercials director Guo Fan 郭帆 an experienced storyboarder. Hong Kong producer-actor Fang Ping 方平 [Henry Fong] invited veteran d.p. Bao Dexi 鲍徳熹 [Peter Pau] (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 卧虎藏龙, 2000; Confucius 孔子, 2010) to come in as “artistic supervisor”, basically to co-ordinate and marshal the project into a workable movie format.
Among many additions, the film version includes scenes from Li Xianji’s youth, growing up in a drably-coloured Beijing of the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as family characters including actor Jiang Wu 姜武 as a science-obsessed uncle. Between the animated sequences for his “adventures”, including one as a CIA agent that enlarges on a similar Al-Qaeda sequence in the short, the script manages a neat twist in the relationship between Li and his “lost love” Wang Qian, dreamily played by Wang Ziwen 王子文 (the internet writer in Driverless 无人驾驶, 2010).
But for all its commercial-arty ambitions and visual invention, the movie becomes over-repetitive after the first half-hour, and finally has to rely on ever-more elaborate flights of time-travel fantasy to stretch what is little more than a vague concept about memory, love and losing control to feature-film length. There’s simply not very much here for an average audience to hold on to, narratively or emotionally, for 90 minutes.
The Chinese title, which means “Li Xianji’s Adventure(s)”, contains a clever but untranslatable alliteration in Mandarin on homophones with different tones – Lǐ Xiànjì lìxiǎn jì.
Presented by Desen International Media (Beijing) (CN), Beijing Maxtimes Culture Media (CN), Beijing Optimism Media (CN), Shenzhen Desen International Media (CN).
Script: Zhang Xiaobei, Guo Fan. Photography: Cao Yong, Liu Yin. Editing: Kuang Zhiliang, Zhou Xinxia. Music: Li Yunwen [Henry Lai]. Art direction: Nan Nan, Yang Wei. Sound: Ren Liang, Zeng Jingxiang [Kinson Tsang]. Visual effects: Li Jinhui, Ding Yanlai. Animation: Lei Zhenyu, Fu Yan. Artistic supervision: Bao Dexi [Peter Pau].
Cast: Fang Zuming [Jaycee Chan] (Li Xianji/Lee), Wang Ziwen (Wang Qian), Jiang Wu (Li Xianji’s father), Yao Lu (Li Xianji’s uncle), You Benchang (The Saviour), Fan Ming (Dr. No-Good), Bai Kainan (interrogating policeman), Yu Quan (two workers in 1950s), Li Xiang (Yin, young policeman), Yano Koji (Umemoto Daigo), Fang Ping [Henry Fong] (Fang Yongping/Bayyan), Zhang Yi.
Release: China, 3 Oct 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 21 Nov 2011.)