US/China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 109 mins.
Director: Wu Shixian 伍仕贤 [Dayyan Eng].
Comedienne Yan Ni motors a likeable supernatural comedy that only fitfully realises its potential.
Beijing, the present day. Shangguan Furong, aka Goddess of Fortune or Earth Goddess (Yan Ni), tells the story of how, instead of messing around with people’s lives, she for once decided to do a human a good turn – in this case, struggling insurance salesman Ma Fendou (Xia Yu). A born loser, thirtysomething Ma Fendou is heckled at his old high school when speaking at a Career Day, is dumped by his longtime girlfriend Ren Shanshan (Song Qian) who calls to tell him she’s getting married, and is warned by his father (Guo Kaimin) and mother (Li Qinqin), who work at the same insurance company, that he needs to improve his sales figures or else. One day Shangguan Furong walks into Ma Fendou’s office and offers to improve his life. But it’s not until she pops up again, at a hamburger bar, that she lays out her offer: in exchange for his soul, she will grant him 19 wishes he’s made since the age of six. Ma Fendou immediately finds his life changing: he can’t shower as the water avoids him (when young, he’d once made a wish not to have any more baths), his parents become pornvideo actors (another boyhood wish), and his hair sprouts like a singer he once admired in the Taiwan boyband F4. His flatmate, express deliveryman Li Fei (Pan Binlong), accepts the situation, as well as the surprise appearances by Shangguan Furong. When he visits Ren Shanshan to explain, she humours him. After she’s gone, Ma Fendou then bumps into Miss Chen (Ning Jing), a teacher he once lusted after and who now lusts after him. Shangguan Furong keeps fulfilling his past wishes – to be a whizz at basketball, to be rich and admired by women – but Ma Fendou realises he still loves Ren Shanshan, who’s getting married the next day.
After his Mephistophelian comedy Inseparable 形影不离 (2011), with Kevin Spacey and Wu Yanzu 吴彦祖 [Daniel Wu], Chinese-American film-maker 伍仕贤 Wu Shixian [Dayyan Eng] stays in the realm of the supernatural with Wished 反转人生, in which a pesky earth goddess reinvents the life of a struggling insurance salesman by making 19 of his childhood wishes come true. Less bumpy than Inseparable, but still not firing on all cylinders as it should, this third feature by Beijing-based Wu, now in his early 40s, is sustained by an experienced cast, topped by veteran actress Yan Ni 闫妮 in a show-stopping turn as the goddess, and solid playing by Xia Yu 夏雨 as the central loser, Pan Binlong 潘斌龙 as his slobby flatmate and (especially) singer-actress Song Qian 宋茜 , from Korean-Chinese K-pop group f(x), as the ex-girlfriend he’d never really appreciated.
Maybe for commercial reasons, or perhaps reflecting Wu’s own diverse background – born in Taiwan, raised internationally, a US citizen of Iranian-Chinese parentage – the film, like Inseparable, consciously attempts to bridge the China-US cultural gap, not on a casting level this time but more in some of its scatalogical humour (often very funny) and lifestyle details (basketball, babes, burgers) which give the story, though set in Beijing and performed in Chinese, a curiously place-less feeling. But the most sizeable American contributions are actually off-screen, from the participation of Los Angeles-based writer Justin Malen (Office Christmas Party, 2016; forthcoming comedy Bastards, 2017) to a whole host of US fantasy movies about wishes coming true. (The film’s Chinese title literally means “Life in Reverse”.) There’s nothing endemically Chinese about Wished: at the flick of a switch the whole film could easily be relocated to Los Angeles in English.
That sense of cultural rootlessness is there from the first shot, as the camera tracks through doors into a classically baroque, fairytale dining room and earth goddess Shangguan Furong introduces herself like a cross between a pantomime wicked godmother and a cabaret diva. One of China’s most accomplished comediennes, Yan, 46, is superb in the role, quickly sweeping the viewer into the film’s make-believe world as she drops barbed quips like a pro. (An early running joke of her always getting the main character’s name wrong is especially funny.) Last seen singlehandedly taking over the rom-com Some Like It Hot 情圣 (2016), as a sexually repressed manager, Yan, who cameoed in Inseparable as an office vamp, is the main motor of Wished, and the film only fulfils its comic potential whenever she’s on screen. Though the screenplay by Malen and Wu has plenty of funny one-liners, the film as a whole lacks a sustained comic rhythm and consistent comic tone, and is further pushed off course by distracting visual effects when the final half hour should be morphing into a true rom-com.
Top-billed Xia – who was in Wu’s first feature, the pioneering rom-com Waiting Alone 独自等待 (2005) – is solid as the Everyman anti-hero and turns in a typically ingenuous performance. Compared with the rest of the characterful cast, however, he too often seems uninflected, especially when Yan and/or stand-up comedian Pan (as the slobby flatmate) are also on screen. The biggest surprise is the assured, wryly comic playing by Song, 30, as the ex-girlfriend: after respectable performances in two pointless movies (South Korean co-production My Sassy Girl 2 我的心野蛮女友, 2016; US co-production My Best Friend’s Wedding 我最好朋友的婚礼, 2016), she here gives serious notice of a big-screen career, and almost compensates for Yan’s absences.
Among the supporting cast, Guo Kaimin 郭凯敏 and Li Qinqin 李勤勤 have some good-natured fun as the anti-hero’s loopy parents, while the best of the many cameos is by actress Ning Jing 宁静 as a super-horny schoolteacher. Wu himself pops up near the end as a grumpy despatch manager, his actress wife Gong Beibi 龚蓓苾 (here billed as a co-producer) in a clip from the TV drama The Legend of Qin 秦时明月 (2015), and Wu Yanzu in a one-shot joke as himself. A more elaborate in-joke is the extended Transformers skit that comes to the fore in the final half-hour: Wu Shixian has been here before, in a dexterous short (starring Ge You 葛优, Zhang Ziyi 章子怡 and Liu Ye 刘烨) he made for the 2007 Golden Rooster Awards’ opening ceremony.
Technically the film is OK without being especially slick, with returning French d.p. Thierry Arbogast delivering a realistic, non-glossy look. A major distraction, however, is the noisy poppy/song score by prolific Chinese American composer Wang Zongxian 王宗贤 [Nathan Wang] plus the US’ Eric Lee Harper and Rob Cairns; both Wang and Harper also worked on Inseparable. In its first two weeks the film has taken almost RMB70 million in the Mainland, way up on Inseparable (RMB9 million).
Presented by Beijing Colordance Pictures (CN), Great Water Cultural Media (Shanghai) (CN), Lian Ray Pictures (CN). Produced by Colordance Pictures (US).
Script: Justin Malen, Wu Shixian [Dayyan Eng]. Photography: Thierry Arbogast. Editing: Wu Shixian [Dayyan Eng]. Music: Wang Zongxian [Nathan Wang], Rob Cairns, Eric Lee Harper. Art direction: Joseph Nemec III. Styling: Tang Yi, Liu Xinghua. Sound: Si Yilin, Si Gudi, Zhang Yang. Visual effects: Zhou Weiyi (Bud Vision).
Cast: Xia Yu (Ma Fendou), Yan Ni (Shangguan Furong), Pan Binlong (Li Fei), Song Qian (Ren Shanshan), Wu Dawei [David Wu] (Yao Hongmen/Angus), Guo Kaimin (Ma Fendou’s father), Li Qinqin (Ma Fendou’s mother), Wu Shixian [Dayyan Eng] (Liu, supervisor), Wang Zhixuan (Kaili, Li Fei’s girlfriend), Li Zhenping (Ren Shanshan’s father), Zhang Yingwei (Ren Shanshan’s mother), Teng Yujia, Yu Wanli, Qi Qi, Xiao Yao, Wu Dongni (party girls), Wang Jinxian (toadying work colleague), Zhang Xinqi, Zhang Xinyao (female twins), She Bacheng (Zhuzhu, Ren Shanshan’s young cousin), Zhang Quanbin (weirdo wedding guest), Huang Zhaoxuan (young Ma Fendou), Wang Baoqiang (voice of Qingtianhu/Megaton), Ying Da (headmaster), Ning Jing (Miss Chen), Jing Gangshan (Bo), Xiao Jian (Wang Ming), Tian Lei (Taozi), Wu Chao (Xiaolin), Li Jing (Ai, professor), Wu Yanzu [Daniel Wu] (himself), Mike Sui (man in toilet), Bao Bei’er (Xiaoluo, man at party), Lei Jiayin (traffic cop).
Release: US, tba; China, 29 Jun 2017.