Hong Kong/China, 2014, colour, 2.35:1, 95 mins.
Director: Li Zhiyi 李志毅 [Lee Chi-ngai].
Breezy, Euro-set caper comedy is likeable enough but no more than that.
Hong Kong, the present day. A container lorry on its way to Kuiyong [Kwai Chung] container port crashes near Jinshan [Kam Shan] park, alerting the police, led by Huang (Liao Qizhi), to a gang of Chinese art smugglers. In London, a few weeks later, two Hong Kong art connoisseurs, Shang Huan (Zeng Zhiwei) and Dong Yan (Wang Zulan), deliver a valuable Tang dynasty ceramic horse, known as the Sancai Horse or Saluzi, to Mayfair Auction House for “safe keeping”. The horse is a Chinese national treasure, one of the Six Steeds of Zhao Mausoleum, of which five have already gone missing. In Hong Kong, two months later, You-TV entertainment reporter Xia Mei (Chen Huilin), who is about to go on holiday in the UK and Spain, is given the chance to work under Mainland government official Chen Jun (Wang Shuo) to recover the Sancai Horse, which is about to be put to auction in London. Keen to be involved in a real news story for a change, she agrees. At the auction she bumps into HK police detective Zhang Hao (Zheng Yijian), who is after international art thief Li Dan, aka Nine-Tailed Fox (Liang Jiahui), who is planning to steal the horse. Li Dan, a master of disguise, last gave Zhang Ho the slip eight years earlier in Italy. Realising Li Dan is staying at her hotel, Xia Mei later follows him but is rumbled. He invites her to “continue the game” by accompanying him to Prague, where the horse has been sent for a secret auction. Xia Mei tells Zhang Ho, and he flies on ahead; but on the same plane as Li Dan and Xia Mei are Shang Huan and Dong Yan, plus an assassin (Liu Bili) who’s been hired by a man in Hong Kong, Butch (Wang Ziyi), to kill Li Dan.
A breezy caper comedy that tries to mimic those romantic star vehicles of the 1960s in which cops and art thieves ran around a touristy Europe, Horseplay 盗马记 lives up to its fluffy English title while rarely hitting its target on the nose. Hong Kong writer-director Li Zhiyi 李志毅 [Lee Chi-ngai], who’s had a wobbly career since working with Chen Kexin 陈可辛 [Peter Chan] in the 1990s (Tom, Dick, and Hairy 风尘三侠, 1993), reunites stars Liang Jiahui 梁家辉 [Tony Leung Ka-fai] and Chen Huilin 陈慧琳 [Kelly Chen] from his last outing (Tales from the Dark 1 李碧华鬼魅系列 迷离夜, 2013) and throws them together as a legendary master of disguise and a wannabe news reporter on the trail of a Chinese national treasure. Also along for the ride in London and Prague are Zheng Yijian 郑伊健 [Ekin Cheng] as a Hong Kong cop, Zeng Zhiwei 曾志伟 [Eric Tsang] and Wang Zulan 王祖蓝 as some goofy art connoisseurs, and a couple of Mainlanders (Wang Ziyi 王紫逸, Wang Shuo 王槊) to justify the China co-funding. It’s all fairly slick, very silly, and reasonably diverting for 90 minutes; but there’s no real excitement or tension to the action scenes, and a complete lack of romance to spice the mix.
As in Tales, Liang and Chen have a likeable chemistry, with the former over-acting in fashion-plate clothes and the latter playing a kooky-smart reporter who also happens to be an expert rock climber. Veteran Liang can phone this kind of performance in, and largely does here; singer-actress Chen, now 41, is more variable, generally hitting her marks but also showing the inconsistency that’s hampered her film career. Zheng, sucking on an empty pipe like a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, coasts charmingly enough in a role that never seems fully integrated into the script.
It’s in the action scenes that Li doesn’t seem to realise that even a caper comedy has to deliver some moments of real tension or excitement. A long sequence in a Prague funfair tent is full of kiddie-style visual effects and is poorly played and staged on an action side; a subsequent robbery by the two leads has no tension at all; and the whole movie basically re-starts at the 80-minute mark with a lame finale back in Hong Kong. The use throughout of slow fades is also disconcerting in what should be a snappy caper.
Widescreen photography of both London and Prague by Australia-born, Asia-based Wade Muller (Tales from the Dark 1; The Last Executioner, 2014) is suitably bright and summery, in line with the retro-ish costumes by Wu Lilu 吴里璐 [Dora Ng]. Also underlining the retro flavour is the use of the Henry Mancini song Meglio stasera (It Had Better Be Tonight), written for The Pink Panther (1963). Its catchy melodies perfectly fit the film’s ambitions, and help to jog things along; but it also points up the fact that Horseplay is no Pink Panther, or even similar 1960s capers like Arabesque (1966) or Gambit (1966). Liang, Zheng and Chen sign off with a fun Chinese rendering of the song at the end, complete with more 1960s-style visual effects. The film’s original title means “Horse Thieves”.
Presented by United Filmmakers Organization (HK), Edko Films (HK), Sil-Metropole Organisation (HK), Bona Film Group (CN). Produced by Sil-Metropole Organisation (HK).
Script: Li Zhiyi [Lee Chi-ngai]. Photography: Wade Muller. Editing: Ye Wanting [Shirley Yip]. Music: Yamamoto Youki. Production design: Xi Zhongwen [Yee Chung-man]. Art direction: Zhang Yinghua. Costume design: Wu Lilu [Dora Ng]. Sound: Zeng Jingxiang [Kinson Tsang], Li Yaoqiang. Action: Huang Weiliang [Jack Wong]. Visual effects: Lin Hongfeng (Free-D Workshop).
Cast: Liang Jiahui [Tony Leung Ka-fai] (Li Dan/Nine-Tailed Fox), Zheng Yijian [Ekin Cheng] (Zhang Hao), Chen Huilin [Kelly Chen] (Xia Mei), Zeng Zhiwei [Eric Tsang] (Shang Huan), Wang Zulan (Dong Yan), Wang Ziyi (Butch), Wang Shuo (Chen Jun), Liu Bili [Mandy Lieu] (twin assassins), Liao Qizhi [Liu Kai-chi] (Huang, police superintendent), Che Wanwan (Lin Qihua/Eva, You-TV reporter), Li Zhishan [Luisa Maria Leitão] (Ping, Star Trackers host), Chen Ying (Li Dan’s daughter), Deng Hanqiang (police spokesman), Luo Tianchi (Zhao, police superintendent), Qu Wei-ling (Dong Wenwei, Dong Yan’s father), Tan Jiaming [Patrick Tam] (groom), Xu Yazhi (bride), Yan Yi’en (Gao, boat captain), Yu Dazhi (police superintendent on pier), Peter Smith (Mr. Chips, Mayfair Auction House boss).
Release: Hong Kong, 27 Mar 2014; China, 21 Mar 2014.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 24 Aug 2014.)