What a Wonderful Family
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 101 mins.
Director: Huang Lei 黄磊.
Re-make of a Japanese comedy feels artificial, and too often looks and sounds like a big-screen TV drama.
Beijing, the present day, winter. Three generations of the Wen family, headed by Wen Jinhui (Li Liqun) and his wife Pan Su (Zhang Weixin), live in a large, modern house in the suburbs. The retired Wen Jinhui spends his time playing badminton and drinking/eating with his pal Cai (Shi Hang) at a backstreets cafe owned by Mei Ling (Yan Ni); Pan Su has joined a creative writing class with a view to penning a novel. One evening, when he returns as usual from a session, Pan Su calmly says she wants a divorce and hands him a paper to sign. Word spreads through the family, with several panicking over what the news will mean for them. Feng Wanli (Wang Xun), the Sichuan husband of Wen Jinhui’s daughter Wen Jing (Hai Qing), hires a private detective (Ying Da) to investigate Wen Jinhui’s relationship with Mei Ling. But when Wen Jinhui sees the detective in the cafe, he recognises him as his old schoolfriend Monkey, and the two end up getting drunk together. The family – elder son Wen Yuan (Huang Lei), an executive in an international company, and his teacher wife Ding Yan (Sun Li), younger son Wen Cong (Wei Daxun), a piano tuner, plus middle daughter Wen Jing, a financial adviser, and her unemployed husband Feng Wanli – decide to call a family meeting to discuss the crisis with Wen Jinhui and Pan Su, though neither of the two elders seem very concerned. Wen Cong turns up with his Taiwan girlfriend Lin Cong (Ren Rongxuan), a nurse working in Beijing. Pan Su finally gives a reason for wanting the divorce. But the rest of the family spend more time arguing among themselves than mediating between the two elders and, when Feng Wanli accuses Wen Jinhui of having an affaire with Mei Ling, Wen Jinhui collapses from shock.
After directing five TV drama series and a couple of shorts over the past decade-and-a-half, Mainland actor/film-maker Huang Lei 黄磊, 45, tries his hand – with mixed results – at a feature with the comedy What a Wonderful Family 麻烦家族, in which a houseful of grown children and spouses is thrown into a tizzy when the elders suddenly decide to divorce. Huang Lei marshals a fine cast, led by Taiwan veteran Li Liqun 李立群 and peppered with cameos by Mainland names like Yan Ni 闫妮 and Ying Da 英达, and turns in a smoothly professional job on a technical level. The problem is that the comedy never catches fire, the central theme is hardly explored, and there’s an artificiality to the whole thing that partly derives from its origins – the movie is a fairly literal remake of a recent Japanese comedy and too often looks like it. Mainland audiences were unimpressed, forking out a weak RMB32 million.
The Japanese original, What a Wonderful Family! 家族はつらいよ (2016), was written by Yamada Yoji 山田洋次 and his regular collaborator Hiramatsu Emiko 平松惠美子, and directed by Yamada – the first comedy by the prolific octagenarian for a couple of decades (see poster, left). The irony is that Huang’s remake, in the rather literal adaptation by Yunnan-born Zhang Bolei 张铂雷 (Xinjiang ethnic drama Flower 鲜花, 2009), is more Japanese middle class than the original, which was actually Yamada’s most un-middle-class movie for some time. The bigger problem, however, is that the remake just feels fake: a well-off, modern Beijing family wouldn’t be sharing a large house like this, way out in the suburbs, in the way that a Japanese one perhaps might, and the way in which they interact with each other is utterly formulaic and sometimes more than a little Nipponese. Not surprisingly, given Huang’s long experience in drama series, the film often looks and sounds like a big-screen TVD; more surprisingly, some characters don’t even convince on that artificial level – the daughter-in-law (played by Huang’s frequent co-star, his actress wife Sun Li 孙莉) behaves exactly like a dutiful Japanese and seems to cook for and run the whole house despite having a job as a teacher.
The bright, cool photography by Hong Kong’s Yu Liwei 余力为 – better known for his work with directors Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯 and Xu Anhua 许鞍华 [Ann Hui] – emphasises the artificiality, with no subtlety or shading, as do the spotless interiors and costumes. Rarely is this put to any positive effect, though occasionally there are hints in the performances by Huang (as the elder, international-exec son, peppering his dialogue with English words) and toothy comedian-director Wang Xun 王迅 (as the hopeless, panicky son-in-law) that the artificiality could have been put to more consistently humorous use. Other cast members play it straight: Sun as the dutiful daughter-in-law, Wei Daxun 魏大勋 as the younger son (his rebelliousness played down in this version), Taiwan actress-singer Ren Rongxuan 任容萱 as his sweet girlfriend, and TV’s Hai Qing 海清 as the ballsy daughter.
With even comedienne Yan in reined-back mode as a cafe owner, and veteran Zhang Weixin 张伟欣 (Country Couple 乡音, 1983; A Good Woman 良家妇女, 1986) almost invisible as the wife who sets off the whole hullabaloo, the only real dramatic heft comes from Taiwan’s Li, 65, as the family’s grizzled patriarch. Seemingly lost to TVD the past couple of decades, the 65-year-old Li, almost unrecognisable with his scruffy look and broad northern accent, is terrific as the weary retiree who likes a drink with old pals (a nice cameo here by Ying as a schoolmate-turned-private detective) and doesn’t really care whether his wife wants a divorce or not. The shame is that the script doesn’t go further into his personality beyond being a TVD-like paterfamilias, nor how it fits into what the film promises to become (but never is) – a discourse on the meaning of love, as interpreted by various generations.
The growing cosiness is underlined by the music of Chen Xinruo 陈欣若, which starts perkily but then leans towards a conventional soupiness. The closing minutes, with a romantic first fall of snow, are accompanied on the soundtrack by Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marleen in German – the film-makers presumably unaware of what the lyrics actually mean. The film’s Chinese title, based on the Japanese one, literally means “Troublesome Family”, which better describes the characters than the English one. In Japan a sequel, What a Wonderful Family! 2 家族はつらいよ2, has already been released, in May 2017.
Presented by Shanghai Artown Entertainment (CN), Magic Stone Cultural Communications (CN), Edko (Beijing) Films (CN).
Script: Zhang Bolei. Original script: Yamada Yoji, Hiramatsu Emiko. Photography: Yu Liwei. Editing: Zhou Ying. Music: Chen Xinruo. Song: Huang Shujun. Art direction: Li Jia. Styling: Pan Lunlin. Sound: Ge Weijia. Visual effects: Tian Yang (Creasun Group). Executive direction: Sun Xiaolong.
Cast: Li Liqun (Wen Jinhui), Zhang Weixin (Pan Su, his wife), Hai Qing (Wen Jing, his daughter), Wang Xun (Feng Wanli, his son-in-law), Huang Lei (Wen Yuan, his elder son), Sun Li (Ding Yan, his daughter-in-law), Wei Daxun (Wen Cong, his younger son), Ren Rongxuan (Lin Cong, Wen Cong’s girlfriend), Yan Ni (Mei Ling, cafe owner), Ying Da (Chen Yiqiu/Monkey, private investigator), Shi Hang (Cai), He Jiong, Yue Yunpeng (ambulance men), Meng Fei (Meng, doctor), Ma Yingchun (writing-class teacher), Cheng Haofeng (security guard), Wu Dongbo (Wen Zijun, Wen Yuan’s elder son), Lu Siyu (Wen Zihan, Wen Yuan’s younger son), Gu Xiaodong (Gu, head doctor), Wang Shao Meiyi (private investigator’s secretary), Yamasaki Keiko (Japanese client), Lin Cong, Chen Dong (grocery-shop owners), Cai Lu (deliveryman), Wu Bi (Wu Qiuren, undertaker), Fang Jiayi (patient).
Release: China, 11 May 2017.