“Crazy Stone” is the latest offering from Hong Kong megastar Andy Lau’s “FOCUS: First Cuts”, a scheme designed to help young Asian film makers. The film has been a genuine sensation at the Chinese box office, raking in more than 17 million RMB (over US$2 million), an incredible figure for such a low budget production. The film marks the arrival proper of 28-year old Chinese director Ning Hao, whose two previous works “Incense” and “Mongolian Pingpong” both played at several international film festivals, with the former winning the Grand Prize at Tokyo Filmex in 2003. Here, Ning turns his hand to criminal farce to great effect, weaving a tangled web of blundering theft and misunderstandings.
The film begins with the discovery of a priceless jade stone at a dilapidated factory which is on the verge of being demolished by a greedy property developer. Seeing the stone as a means of making enough money to keep the wolves at bay, the factory owner decides to put it on show in a run down temple while he tries to find a buyer, appointing factory worker and ex-detective Bao (actor Guo Tao, recently in the Hong Kong breast cancer comedy “2 Become 1”) as chief of security. The poor man, already suffering from prostrate troubles, soon has his hands full as an incompetent trio of thieves, a professional burglar hired by the unscrupulous developer, and the factory owner’s slimy son try all manner of tricky schemes to get their grubby paws on the stone.
Although “Crazy Stone” has been branded by some as the Chinese equivalent of “Ocean’s Eleven”, Ning Hao’s film is arguably more cleverly constructed and benefits from having a far more vivid and believable set of characters who are well written and don’t simply rely upon audience familiarity with the actors. The film’s plot is wonderfully intricate, with Ning showing great skills as a story teller, taking a simple scenario and packing it with delightful twists, gradually allowing the tension to build as incompetence piles upon incompetence, leaving the gripped viewer with little clue as to where and with whom the stone will end up. Almost every event in the film has a knock on effect, with the various groups of characters unwittingly being joined together in a complex dance. Ning plays upon this to great comical effect, giving the film a wry sense of irony, and through a supreme act of narrative juggling manages to avoid any sense of contrivance.
The film is very funny, both in terms of clever dialogue and situations, as well as in its use of broad physical humour. However, Ning never lets things go overboard, and though there is plenty of slapstick, the film never ventures into Stephen Chow-style surrealism, or strays from its believable and engaging scenario. There are a great many laugh out loud moments, especially towards the end as the characters very slowly come to see the bigger picture, leading to some amusingly fitting, though unforced resolutions.
Ning’s direction is excellent throughout, and he employs a variety of technical tricks, including split screen work and some crazy but inventive editing, all of which compliments the narrative rather than simply included for the sake of showing off. He manages to keep things moving at a frenzied pace for most of the running time, with plenty of action and fiendishly designed set pieces to raise the viewer’s pulse. Although there are a few brief bursts of violence, the tone is generally kept playful, which is a wise move on the director’s part, allowing him to give the film its own identity as opposed to simply going down the usual gritty, hardboiled robbery gone wrong route.
“Crazy Stone” is simply a great film, highly entertaining, and enjoyable, and breathes new life into the comic heist caper which has long grown stale in the West. It stands not only as one of the best Chinese films of the last few years, but one of the best examples of low budget film making from anywhere in the world for some time. Indeed, Ning has worked wonders with his limited resources, and the results are worth a hundred of recent bloated Chinese shlockbusters like “The Promise” or “The Banquet”. Certainly, it is great to see a director with the confidence to make a film with a real local feel to it, rather than churning out yet another would be wuxia epic.
Hao Ning (director) / Zhang Cheng, Hao Ning, Xiaojun Yue, Cheng Zhang (screenplay)
CAST: Huang Bo …. Hei Pi
Zhonghua Chen …. Factory director
Jie Du …. Man with girl in the limo
Tao Guo …. Shihong Bao
Shu Hou …. Qingqing
Bo Huang …. Heipi
Teddy Lin …. Mike
Gang Liu …. San Bao