Guan Hu, writer and director of the acclaimed “Cow”, returns with another World War II set comedy drama in “The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel”, which sees the titular three rogues going up against the Japanese in Beijing to try and get their hands on a cure for cholera. Headlined by three of the country’s most popular actors, Liu Ye (“The Last Supper”), Zhang Hanyu (“Back to 1942”) and Huang Bo (“Lost in Thailand”), the film takes place mainly in the one location, and is an imaginative and constantly shifting affair that attempts to keep the viewer guessing through to the end.
The film opens in 1941 in Beijing under Japanese occupation, with a strict curfew enforced and the city decimated by a cholera epidemic. A stage coach trying to pass through is ambushed and hijacked by the Scoundrel (Huang Bo), who subsequently crashes into an inn, run by proprietor the Chef (Liu Ye) and his wife (Liang Jing, also in the director’s “Design of Death”) and where opera performer the Actor (Zhang Hanyu) also works. The Scoundrel takes the two Japanese soldiers travelling in the coach hostage and joins with the others in trying to figure out how to ransom them for money. However, they soon uncover that the two are actually scientists from the notorious Unit 731 and are carrying with them an experimental cholera cure in a canister, and they decide to steal it in the hopes of a bigger profit.
“The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel” is a film of constant surprises, and it’s pretty hard to talk about it without giving an early twist away. So, for those who want to go in totally fresh (never a bad idea), the long and the short is that this is a highly inventive, cleverly constructed, and above all fun film, which is definitely worth the time of any Chinese cinema fans. Another great effort from Guan Hu and with great performances from the cast, it comes very much recommended.
Anyone wishing to avoid spoilers should stop reading now (and are also advised not to read the DVD back cover blurb).
The film certainly starts off in madcap fashion, with some over the top action, bizarrely stylised acting and lots of slapstick comedy as the three titular characters bicker over their Japanese captives. Though it’s all very amusing, a lot of viewers would be forgiven at this stage for feeling a little baffled. About half an hour in, Guan Hu puts at least some of his cards on the table, revealing that the chef, actor and scoundrel, along with the chef’s wife, are actually Chinese agents, who have set the whole thing up with the aim of snatching the scientists, their charade being planned as a means of getting them to let their guard down. From here on, things get increasingly complicated, and the film becomes a constantly shifting game of cat and mouse, with a group of useless detectives trying to sneak in and seize the cholera canister, and with Japanese troops amassing outside.
This really only scratches the surface, and there’s a great deal more going on, the film at the same time working in flashbacks that flesh out the characters’ relationships – apparently, the story was actually based upon a true story. Thankfully, Guan Hu does a fantastic job of juggling everything, and it’s truly impressive just how seamlessly the film leaps from comedy to spy drama to germ warfare thriller and more, never missing a beat in the process. It’s breathlessly entertaining stuff, and is all the more enjoyable for the fact that while it certainly plays with the viewer and cleverly subverts expectations, it never feels manipulative, thanks in no small part to an expertly constructed script. With the characters all being likeable and surprisingly multi-dimensional, it’s both involving and eventually even moving, and though there are a few melodramatic touches towards the end, they at least feel well-earned.
Guan Hu’s direction fits the material perfectly, with an air of manic energy throughout that keeps things moving at a breakneck pace. Though it takes place mostly on just the one set, the production design is gorgeous, and some excellent camerawork makes sure that the visuals never get repetitive. A fine sense of comic timing also helps, and though those familiar with either Peking opera or the early days of Chinese cinema might get a little more out of some of the setups, there are plenty of laughs for the general viewer, along with some nicely choreographed, and frequently quite bloody action scenes.
“The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel” is a film which really doesn’t put a foot wrong and which packs in more good stuff than several other less ambitious productions combined. Guan Hu is a writer director with a particular talent not only for fast paced fun and visual style, but also for solid character work, and with Liu Ye, Zhang Hanyu and Huang Bo all on great form, it’s one of those rare films with both a heart and a brain.
Hu Guan (director) / Run Nian Dong, Hu Guan (screenplay)
CAST: Ye Liu … Chu zi (Chef)
Hanyu Zhang … Xi zi (Actor)
Bo Huang … Pi zi (Scoundrel)
Jing Liang … Feng po zi (Crazy wife)
Chie Tanaka … Yanagida