After the disappointingly lacklustre “Missing”, it’s hard not to view “All About Women” as yet another comeback film for the once mighty Tsui Hark. Although a “Sex and the City” style comedy exploring the inner turmoil of women in modern China may not sound like the most obvious choice of projects for a film maker still best known for fantasy blockbusters like “Zu Warriors” and “A Chinese Ghost Story”, Hark certainly knows how to do screwball set pieces, and the emphasis here is firmly on the wacky. Interestingly, the film was co-written by “My Sassy Girl” director Kwak Jae Yong, which gives a good indication of the tone and behaviour of the female characters. Their collaboration turns out to be a winning one, and almost against the odds, the film is highly entertaining, more than anything else due to the fact that it is one of the silliest and most nonsensical productions to have emerged from China for some time.
The film follows three women – hard nosed siren and high flying business woman Tang Lu (Kitty Zhang, showing a very different side of herself than in Stephen Chow’s “CJ7”), rebellious rock chick Tie Ling (Guey Lun Mei, recently in Jay Chou’s “Secret”) and plain looking scientist Fanfan (Zhou Xun, “Painted Skin”). Each has their own problems in life, in Tang Lu’s case that she finds herself being followed around by men despite claiming not to believe in love herself. Tie Ling bounces between different bands while obsessing over an imaginary boyfriend that only she can see, the result of a troubled childhood, and Fanfan spends all her time trying to create pheromone stickers that will attract the opposite sex. The three eventually come together as Fanfan sets her sights on the singer in Tie Ling’s latest band, while Tang Lu tries to steal her invention to aid her latest business scheme.
If the above synopsis sounds chaotic, contrived or confusing, that’s because it is. The plot itself borders on gibberish, and is a background concern at best, with the pheromone stickers giving Hark free reign to play around with his characters according to his whims rather than any kind of narrative logic. The story leaps around between the women before bringing them together and essentially setting them against each other, though it does so in surprisingly engaging fashion. Although the women are sketchily drawn, they are all interesting, primarily since all three of them are in their own ways quite mad. Kitty Zhang, Guey Lun Mei and Zhou Xun all turn in game, likeable performances, alternating between cute and aggressive in true “Sassy” style. It would be too much of a stretch to describe the film as being character based, but in the absence of any real plot, the girls certainly do drive the proceedings and keep the viewer watching.
Despite the themes, the film is not a piece of feminist cinema, or indeed a chick flick as such. If anything, Hark seems to be taking a slyly cynical look at the true nature of love and attraction, and how women use their wiles to ensnare men, seemingly quite often against their will. He certainly draws some very odd conclusions towards the end, though the film wins points for holding its nerve and not straying too far into more traditional romantic comedy territory or for wrapping things up with a trite moral message.
To an extent, all efforts to fathom the film are pointless, as Hark’s main purpose is clearly on providing wacky entertainment, and on that level it scores highly with a great mix of classic Hollywood farce and Hong Kong style randomness. The gags come thick and fast, mainly in the form of slapstick and pratfalls, and the film is possessed of a manic energy, an infectious sense of fun, and a definite atmosphere of self awareness that stops just short of Hark shrugging at the camera. Although the film’s humour is frequently off the wall and baffling, it works well, and there are plenty of genuine laughs scattered throughout.
Hark really lets his imagination fly, and his direction recalls some of his early Hong Kong comedies. The film is prone to bizarre flights of surrealism, usually entirely unconnected to the plot, and features war scenes, sudden bursts of CGI and touches of cute animation, with cartoon roses and hearts frequently popping up on screen. The film certainly looks gorgeous, and not just because of the considerable eye candy provided by the three female leads. Hark makes the very most of the impressive production values, making every scene vibrant and colourful, with some incredible set designs and bright costumes.
As a result, although what “All About Women” actually has to say about women in modern China or indeed about love in general is open to debate, it is certainly a great deal more entertaining than the vast majority of po-faced films which have tackled the same subject. Hark is on fine, wacky form and delivers plenty of laughs with what is possibly his most enjoyable film for some time, giving real hope that he will again find the form that made him one of Asia’s best loved directors.
Hark Tsui (director) / Jae-young Kwak, Hark Tsui (screenplay)
CAST: Xun Zhou … Ou Fanfan (as Zhou Xun)
Lunmei Kwai … Tie Ling
Kitty Zhang Yuqi … Tang Lu
Stephen Fung … Xiaogang
Alex Fong … Wu Mong-gu
Godfrey Kao … X
Chang Shen … Tian Yuan