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Top Chinese funny men Xiao Shenyang and Zhao Benshan return with period set comedy “Just Call me Nobody”, poking fun at costume epics through the adventures of a lowly shoemaker who bumbles and fumbles his way through the martial arts world. With the twosome recently having been on screens together in Zhang Yimou’s “A Simple Noodle Story”, this time around Xiao takes the lead role while Zhao also acts as producer, the film directed by Taiwanese helmer Chu Yen Ping (“Kung Fu Dunk”). As well as the headlining humorists, the film also has a vast and high profile supporting cast, which includes Kelly Lin (“Reign of Assassins”), Benny Chen, industry veterans Jacky Wu, Eric Tsang, Wong Yat Fei, Leung Ka Yan and others. The film also received a boost in the form of acclaimed action choreographer Ching Siu Tung (“A Chinese Ghost Story”), whose martial arts scenes helped propel it to massive Mainland box office success, where it was one of the biggest hits of the year.
The plot follows Xiao Shenyang as shoemaker Wu Di, a simple but decent young fellow obsessed with reading martial arts comics despite having absolutely no skills of his own. One day after trying to protect a beautiful young woman (Kelly Lin) from a brute in the marketplace, he accidently gets caught up in an adventure of his own, which takes him on an epic journey that crosses his path with a number of kung fu masters including pirates, swordsmen, hermits, scheming villains, and even the emperor himself.
Although there have been plenty of Chinese costume comedies of late, most have suffered from being far too scattershot, lacking any kind of plot or definable characters to hold them together. “Just Call me Nobody” however manages to avoid such pitfalls, thanks mainly to the immensely likeable Xiao Shenyang, who makes for a perfect everyman protagonist as Wu Di, playing things straight while essentially carrying the film and most of its comedy on his shoulders. In this respect, the script is extremely effective, making him very human and sympathetic, and allowing for the viewer to laugh at his countless misadventures and good natured nonsense without ever letting him become a simple figure of fun. Zhao Benshan and the rest of the cast are all on game form too and add to the film’s overall sense of infectious amiability with a series of daft performances that successfully lampoon the kind of posturing figures that usually appear in martial arts epics.
The film also does a great job in balancing plot and gags, and though Wu Di’s journey is basically a series of random encounters and strange coincidences, it makes for a surprisingly engaging and focused heroic character arc. As expected, the gags themselves range greatly from poking fun at other films through to broad slapstick, and though some of the modern pop culture references are a touch odd, there’s nothing too tasteless or obscure that grates. At the same time, Chu Yen Ping manages to work in some pretty surreal humour and the film is creative and imaginative, with musical numbers, wacky set pieces and clever word play peppered throughout. The humour for the most part is on target, and the film definitely has a much better gag hit rate than other recent genre outings, showing genuine effort and craftsmanship rather than just throwing in everything but the kitchen sink is as so often the case. Ching Siu Tung’s action choreography also gives things a boost, with some great martial arts scenes that help things to move along at a fair pace, and which for once feel like they might have been lifted from an actual kung fu film.
As a result, “Just Call me Nobody” is easily the best and the funniest of the recent Chinese period comedies, and it’s easy to see why it was such a box office hit. Benefitting hugely from the appealing presence and good natured wackiness of Xiao Shenyang and Zhao Benshan, by the standards of the genre the film is well made and nicely judged, and works as far more than the kind of derisory gag-fest which audiences have been sadly offered of late.
Yen-ping Chu (director)
CAST: Xiao Shen-Yang …. Wu Di