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Review: Never Say Die (2017)

Never Say Die

羞羞的铁拳

China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 99 mins.

Directors: Song Yang 宋阳, Zhang Chiyu 张吃鱼.

Rating: 6/10.

Body-swap comedy is a mixed bag, overall not as good as the troupe’s previous hit, Goodbye Mr. Loser.

STORY

Haiquan city, somewhere in northern China, the present day. Three years ago, after breaking his arm during a match for the Universal Fighting King title, MMA contender Edison (Ai Lun) was disgraced by the revelation that he had tried to bribe his opponent Wu Liang (Xue Haowen) into losing. The cocky Edison now plans his comeback by challenging Wu Liang again and gets his fixer, Ma Dong (Tian Yu), to rig the match as usual. However, their conversation is recorded by Ma Xiao (Ma Li), an influential sports reporter at Haiquan TV who is not only Ma Dong’s daughter but also Wu Liang’s fiancee. In a struggle to retrieve the recording, Edison and Ma Xiao fall into a hotel’s rooftop swimming pool during an electrical storm and accidentally kiss while doing so. When they both wake up in hospital, they discover they have swapped bodies. However, after a lot of quarreling, and becoming used to their new bodies, the two realise they need each other. Promising to be his trainer, “Ma Xiao” forces “Edison” to go ahead with his challenge for Wu Liang’s title, otherwise “Ma Xiao” will sleep with Diao (Song Yang), an office colleague who is madly in love with Ma Xiao. But in a UFK qualifying match in Macau, “Edison” fights like a sissy against Wei Xiang, aka The Surgeon, and loses. Afterwards, Wu Liang informs “Edison” that – backed by his influential father Wu De (Lin Wei) – he’s also part of the fight-fixing game and that he’s lost a lot of money from Edison’s defeats. “Ma Xiao” overhears the conversation and storms into the room, attacking Wu Liang. Wu Liang says he wants back the money he’s lost, or else. “Edison” decides he’ll man up and become a real fighter, though his first attempts are hopeless. Meanwhile, Wu Liang tries threatening Ma Dong in order to get back his money; the latter is rescued by “Edison” and “Ma Xiao”, though during the operation “Edison” learns from Wu Liang what really happened during their fight three years earlier. On Ma Dong’s suggestion, they all go to the Rolling Lotus School 卷莲门 at a remote monastery for specialist training; the Master is away, but his deputy, Zhang Zhuyu (Shen Teng), teaches them new techniques, including the powerful One-Finger Death and Lion’s Roar moves. At the UFK championship in Macau, “Edison” has to defeat four fighters in order to challenge Wu Liang. After defeating three, he’s ordered by Wu Liang to lose to the fourth, Ken, who is one of Wu Liang’s men. But “Edison” refuses.

REVIEW

A male MMA fighter and a female TV reporter find they’ve swapped bodies during an electrical storm in Never Say Die 羞羞的铁拳, a very variable comedy by Beijing-based theatre company Ma Hua FunAge 开心麻花 that’s bigger and brassier than its first foray into film production, Goodbye Mr. Loser 夏洛特烦恼 (2015), but not as consistently funny or with such likeable characters. As the fearless reporter who finds her body inhabited by the MMA fighter, actress Ma Li 马丽 again shows she has enough spunk and energy to power a whole film, but her chemistry with co-lead Ai Lun 艾伦 is not nearly as strong as with actor Shen Teng 沈腾 in Loser. The screenplay, too, lacks the human dimension of Loser to give the finale some emotional clout beyond its “winning” ethic. Despite all this, the film – directed and written by the play’s original creators and released, like Loser, over the lucrative October holiday – has been a resounding hit, taking some RMB2 billion in its first three weeks and still showing on a sizeable number of screens. It could come close to doubling Loser‘s already peachy hawl of RMB1.4 billion two years ago.

Loser was a body-swap comedy with a time-travel element, as its hero was whisked back in time to high school; Never is a body-swap comedy with a gender element, as two frenemies wake up in hospital after a spat in a swimming pool to find they’ve switched identities. Cue an extended number of jokes as each gets used to his/her new bodies: one funny idea is each asking the other please not to look down while showering, and there’s an amusing sequence (set to the song Y.M.C.A.) of the man-in-a-woman’s-body going to ogle a female sauna. But the biggest laugh from these early scenes is when the two revisit the pool with a pile of taser batons to try to replicate the electrical storm that caused the body switch. Like most of Ma Hua’s best stuff, this is pure character comedy, reliant as much on the actors as on the central comic idea.

Compared with Loser, Never has too few of such scenes, especially in the final stretch where the flashily staged and edited fight scenes take over. But where character comedy is allowed to bloom – as in the spoof of martial-arts monastery training, where Ma is briefly reunited with Shen, her best screen partner (Heart for Heaven 一念天堂, 2015) – the change is noticeable. Even though there’s nothing new about satirising martial-arts training, it’s handled with a beguiling warmth that the rest of the film lacks, and some of the sight gags (a bird-staring contest; a flyer-on-cars challenge) are pricelessly played and staged.

As in Loser, the local references and linguistic jokes and song/music spoofs come thick and fast – Ma Hua has never made any secret that its prime audience is in the Mainland – with one of the funniest a cameo by actor Yin Zheng 尹正 and actress Wang Zhi 王智 that plays on their roles in Loser as well as the well-known song A Spray of Plum Blossoms 一剪梅. It’s not necessary to get every joke; more problematic, however, is the screenplay’s bumpy construction, which is unnecessarily confusing at the start (prior to the body swap) and thrashes around in the second half, with no real rhythm or central line of development. Part of the problem is that, apart from the brain-twisting idea of the body swap and its associated sexual complexities, the rest of the plot is pretty thin.

As in all her screen roles, Ma, 35, is a bundle of energy, and here perfect casting as the woman-with-a-man’s-brain; as her frenemy, rubbery-faced Ai Lun has a lot of fun with the campy stuff, especially an MMA fight he minces his way through, but he doesn’t really establish any special chemistry with Ma beyond the functional. As noted, Shen briefly knocks Ai Lun off his perch with one of his trademark minimalist performances as a martial-arts master. As the fighter’s gleefully corrupt fixer, Tian Yu 田雨 brings a more human note amid all the spoofery; however, as the villain of the piece, Xue Haowen 薛皓文, who’s not a member of the Ma Hua troupe, is too coldly clinical and seems detached from the movie. Throughout, production values are high, with Hong Kong’s Xu Hongyu 许宏宇 [Derek Hui] again handling the trim editing.

The original play opened in Beijing on 20 Nov 2014, directed by Song Yang 宋阳, written by Zhang Chiyu 张吃鱼 and Song, and starring Ai Lun and Ma Li (see poster, left). Though Never is marketed as the third film production by Ma Hua, it’s creatively only the second, as the excellent Mr. Donkey 驴得水 (2016) was a pickup, not adapted from an original Ma Hua theatre piece or featuring the whole troupe. The film’s Chinese title roughly translates as “Bashful Iron Fist”.

CREDITS

Presented by Beijing Fun Age Pictures (CN), New Classics Pictures (CN), Tianjin Maoyan Media (CN), Horgos Mahua Fun Age Technology (CN). Produced by Beijing Fun Age Pictures (CN).

Script: Song Yang, Zhang Chiyu. Photography: Li Bingqiang. Editing: Xu Hongyu [Derek Hui]. Music: Dong Dongdong. Styling: Sheng Zihang. Sound: Yang Hao. Special effects: Zhang Le. Visual effects: Wang Zhen.

Cast: Ai Lun (Aidisheng/Edison), Ma Li (Ma Xiao), Shen Teng (Zhang Zhuyu), Tian Yu (Ma Dong), Song Yang (Diao), Xue Haowen (Wu Liang), Chang Yuan (Meng Tejiao, boxer), Huang Cailun (Edison’s manager), Yin Zheng, Wang Zhi (couple who rescue Ma Dong), Lin Wei (Wu De, Wu Liang’s father), Yang Yang (newscaster), Gong Rui (Li Bingqiang), Wang Chengsi (long-haired martial artist), Wei Wei.

Release: China, 30 Sep 2017.