A Nail Clipper Romance
Hong Kong/China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 98 mins.
Director: Guan Zhiyao 关智耀 [Jason Kwan].
Wacky short-story idea doesn’t go the distance as a feature-length rom-com, despite its cast.
Hawaii, the present day. Passionate surfer Sean Chen (Zhang Xiaoquan) ends up in hospital after an accident and all his circle, led by his cousin Fion (Xie Yilin), thinks he tried to commit suicide after being two-timed by his girlfriend Carman (Xu Weining). To celebrate his discharge, his friends – Matt (Na Dou), Matt’s girlfriend Daisy (Cai Jie), and Lulu (Lin Chenxi) who holds a torch for Sean – take him to a bar, where he gets drunk and agrees to a request from an equally drunk young woman, Li Leshi, aka Emily (Zhou Dongyu), to let her lick his cheek for a bet. Two days later he bumps into Emily at the tattoo shop where she works and they spend the rest of the day and the evening together. She says she’s one-quarter Korean via her father, and that she studied fine arts in Paris where she grew up, her mother being an Overseas Chinese. Sean later introduces her to his circle. After Emily takes him to an old local cinema, the Hawaii, which she claims is haunted – and where Sean remembers he caught Carman kissing another man – they end up in bed at his place. Next morning, when he notices his nail clipper appears to have been chewed, she runs off after he mentions it. Later she confesses she’s actually a Nail Clipper Devil, a group of people who exist secretly all around the world; nail clippers are all she can eat and her digestive system can handle. The sceptical Matt urges Sean to get her to prove it, but when he buys her a nail clipper she refuses to be a performing horse, saying he must trust and believe in her. Emily then tells him her dream of opening a Nail Clipper Cafe, so others of her kind will have a place to congregate openly.
Even the gamine kookiness of Mainland actress Zhou Dongyu 周冬雨 can’t rescue A Nail Clipper Romance 指甲刀人魔, a wacky short-story idea that doesn’t go the distance as a feature film, especially when asked to double as a rom-com. Hawaii-set tale about an emotionally vulnerable surfer and a weirdo (Zhou) who claims to be a nail clipper-eating devil is OK during its 40-minute set-up but has no idea where to go after that, literally losing the (already scanty) plot. Produced by Hong Kong maverick Peng Haoxiang 彭浩翔 [Pang Ho-cheung] via his company Making Film 正在电影, though largely with Mainland money, it’s a technically good-looking but dramatically weak directing debut by d.p. Guan Zhiyao 关智耀 [Jason Kwan], who’s shot most of Peng’s films since Love in a Puff 志明与春娇 (2010) but has also worked across all genres during the past decade (All about Love 再说一次我爱你, 2005; Merry-Go-Round 东风破, 2010; Dear Enemy 亲密敌人, 2011; As the Light Goes Out 救火英雄, 2014; Cold War II 寒战II , 2016).
The screenplay, by Lu Yixin 陆以心 (a Peng regular), Duan Duan 端端 and You Kaiyuan 游凯媛, is based on 指甲钳人魔, one of 18 short stories in Peng’s 2009 collection Trivial Matters 破事儿. The book (see left) shares the same Chinese and English titles with Peng’s 2007 featurette, which contained seven short stories. In addition, the material was adapted in 2010 into an online short, 4夜奇谭之指甲刀人魔, co-written and directed by two more from Peng’s circle, Zeng Guoxiang 曾国祥 [Derek Tsang] and Yin Zhiwen 尹志文 [Jimmy Wan]. This was one in a package of “four weird tales”, produced by Peng with Mainland money, known under the collective title 4+1.
Starring China’s Zhou Xun 周迅 as the weirdo and Hong Kong actor-singer Zhou Junwei 周俊伟 as her younger prey, the 2010 short (see poster, left) worked a treat, partly thanks to the casting of the gravel-voiced Zhou, its adherence to a tight, short-story format, and a twist that made practical sense. Guan’s feature film fails on all three of those fronts: elfin Zhou Dongyu, who can usually rescue most films, simply lacks the dramatic heft for the part; the script runs out of material after its set-up; and there’s no really convincing revelation that either makes sense or is emotionally satisfying after the audience has been left hanging for 90 minutes. Like its heroine, the movie just fades away – long after the audience has stopped believing in it.
Aside from the fact that there’s no real reason to set the story in Hawaii – apart from production incentives – the widescreen photography does provide an attractive frame, even though it adds no germane atmosphere. Zhou is fine in the first half-hour-or-so, mining her trademark kookiness as a mercurial tattoo artist with a mysterious background, and delivering lines like “I am a mature woman!” with glee. She also has good chemistry with Taiwan’s Zhang Xiaoquan 张孝全 [Joseph Chang] as a surfer who’s still trying to get over being two-timed by his last girlfriend. But when the script tries to turn all these ingredients into an odd-couple rom-com, the mixture just doesn’t gell, especially with so much padding in the screenplay: voice-overs by Zhang, full of surfing philosophy; cut-out animation and voice-overs by Zhou, explaining the origin of the Nail Clipper Devils; scenic montages; a vague subplot about a jealous female friend; and comic schtick by Taiwan’s Na Dou 纳豆 (as a buddy) and Xie Yilin 谢依霖 (as a cousin).
The screenplay pivots on the ideas of trust in a relationship, of something being true if you believe enough in it – both of which are used by Zhou’s character to convince Zhang’s that she really is a Nail Clipper Devil. But the themes, along with the idea of social outsiders living closeted lives, are only dealt with at a superficial level, and there’s no emotional undertow to the film to support them. The (semi-)twist in this version is also weak compared with the short’s, and makes no sense as a resolution to a rom-com.
The film just about remains watchable thanks to the peformances, many by the cast’s sizeable Taiwan contingent: Zhang, who’s slowly developing into a likeable actor, makes at least his early scenes believable, even if his later love-conversion is not; comedienne Xie (the tubby in the Tiny Times 小时代 quartet, 2013-15) pops in and out, doing her schtick as a straight-talking cousin; comic Na Dou (the drugs mule in Godspeed 一路顺风, 2016) is also amusing as another straight-talking friend; Lin Chenxi 林辰唏 (the sassy younger sister in Taipei Exchanges 第36个故事, 2009) makes the best of a torch-carrying role; and half-Italian American actress Xu Weining 许玮甯 [Tiffany Hsu] has one strong scene as the ex of Zhang’s character. Apart from Zhou, the only non-Taiwan cast member to make much of an impression is Hong Kong’s Zheng Yijian 郑伊健 [Ekin Cheng], who pops by to offer some sage advice as a hippie surfing master.
Music by Italy’s Gabriele Roberto, who scored Peng’s Exodus 出埃及记 (2007) and Dream Home 维多利亚壹号 (2010), is pleasantly conventional, supporting a rom-com that isn’t really there. The film was shot back in late 2014 on Oahu island, around Honolulu. The Chinese title literally means “The Nail-Cutter Human Devil”. In the Mainland the film crashed and burned, grossing a tiny RMB4.5 million.
Presented by Beijing JQ Spring Pictures (CN), Sun Entertainment Culture (HK), Zheng Zai Culture Media (Beijing) (CN), Kashgar JQ Media & Culture (CN), East Wave Film Production (CN), Xinjiang Liehuo Cultural Media (CN). Produced by Making Film Productions (HK).
Script: Chen Yixin, Duan Duan, You Kaiyuan. Short story: Peng Haoxiang [Pang Ho-cheung]. Photography: Ying Feng. Editing: Li Dongquan [Wenders Li]. Music: Gabriele Roberto. Production design: Zhang Shihong [Silver Cheung]. Art direction: Li Jianwei. Costume design: Luo Peisha. Sound: Du Juntang, Du Duzhi, Jiang Lianzhen. Visual effects: Wang Yinghao (Oh Yes Productions).
Cast: Zhou Dongyu (Li Leshi/Emily), Zhang Xiaoquan [Joseph Chang] (Chen Haocheng/Sean), Zheng Yijian [Ekin Cheng] (surfboard-company boss), Xie Yilin (Fion, Sean Chen’s cousin), Xu Weining [Tiffany Hsu] (Carman, Sean Chen’s ex), Lin Chenxi (Lulu), Na Dou [Lin Yuzhi] (Matt), Cai Jie (Daisy), Sheng Langxi (Sara, Lin Leshi’s cousin), Johnnie M. Purvis, Dustin Geiger (Sean Chen’s co-workers), Rey Payumo (tattoo-shop owner), Alvin Vierra (policeman), Will Wild (cinema manager).
Premiere: Beijing Film Festival, 11 Apr 2017.
Release: Hong Kong, 14 Apr 2017; China, 14 Apr 2017.