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Hong Kong director and UFO (United Filmmakers Organization) founder Lee Chi Ngai returns with “Horseplay”, an old-fashioned crime comedy boasting an all-star cast and exotic European locations. Though an acclaimed director, best known for the much loved “Lost and Found”, Lee isn’t exactly prolific, and the film is his first feature length Chinese language offering since “Magic Kitchen” back in 2004, following his segment in last year’s horror omnibus “Tales from the Dark”. HK favourites Kelly Chen, Ekin Cheng and Tony Leung Ka Fai headline, with support from the likes of Eric Tsang, Wong Cho Lam and Mandy Lieu in a light-hearted tale of cops, robbers and art theft.
Chen stars as Mui, an entertainment journalist who’s overjoyed when she gets the chance to combine a trip to London to attend her friend’s wedding with an assignment to try and track down a notorious art thief called Nine Tailed Fox (Tony Leung Kai Fai), a criminal genius and master of disguise who has avoided capture for decades. The Fox is only too aware of her clumsy attempts to tail him, and decides to reveal himself to her and try and involve her in his scheme to steal the priceless Tang Dynasty Sancai Horse. At the same time, Hong Kong detective Cheung Ho (Ekin Cheng) also persuades Mui to help him catch the Fox, and the three end up chasing each other all over Europe, with eccentric art dealers Mr. Round (Eric Tsang) and Mr. Yin (Wong Cho Lam) and a beautiful assassin (Mandy Lieu) along for the ride.
“Horseplay” is very much a 1960s style caper flick, Lee Chi Ngai taking a playful approach and drawing on some of Hitchcock’s lighter works, as well as the likes of the Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant starring “Charade” and other escapist charmers. Though there’s drama and suspense to a degree, the emphasis here is very much on comedy and laughs, Lee working in plenty of slapstick, comic misunderstandings, daft disguises and general tomfoolery, making sure that the film lives up to its name. The gags and timing are generally effective, and the film makes for good-natured and amiable viewing, even if it rarely makes sense.
The production values and locales certainly help, and the film having been lensed in London and Prague successfully gives it the glamorous and foreign allure that Lee is looking for, with lots of shots of famous tourist destinations and of luxurious food and drinks. The cast all seem to be having an appropriate amount of fun with their thinly written though essentially likeable characters, and while Chen is a little wooden in a stereotypically cutesy clumsy role, Cheng and Leung are both value for money and the eccentric supporting cast all do their bit.
The downside to all this mirth is that the film doesn’t work as well when it comes to its more serious elements, and Lee never manages to drum up much tension or engage the viewer in its central mystery or criminal plot. With there being no real villains, Mandy Lieu’s supposed killer being too over/under dressed to really count, there’s not much dramatic momentum, the narrative clearly being built around excuses for the cast to hop around Europe. While this doesn’t really slow things down and the film is never dull, it does make for a general feeling that Lee could have tried a little harder with the script to inject the kind of thrills and actual intrigue that directors like Hitchcock and Stanley Donen managed to balance so well with humour and silliness.
Still, “Horseplay” is a harmless and generally entertaining piece of fun, and is better crafted and constructed than most other recent Hong Kong comedies. Lee Chi Ngai is certainly capable of better, though as a bright and breezy star vehicle and picture postcard tour of Europe, there’s a fair amount to be said for its modest charms.
Chi-Ngai Lee (director) / Chi-Ngai Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Kelly Chen
Tony Leung Ka Fai