Wu Yen (2001) Movie Review

“Wu Yen” looks like a play turned into a movie, but without all the trappings of a “movie world” and everything associated with that. The film purports to tell the “real” story of the Qi Emperor and his rise to greatness, which gives it some ties to the new Jet Li movie “Hero”, which tells about the same emperor, but from a much more serious point of view. “Wu Yen” is all about over the top comedy, foolishness, and hijinks, all in the name of servicing the Gods of Low Brow Humor.

Sammi Cheng stars as the titular character, a female warrior who is predestined to marry the cowardly Emperor Qi (played here by the very female Anita Mui). Destiny gets thrown for a loop when Qi unleashes the Enchantress (the always enchanting Cecilia Cheung). Although the Enchantress falls for the warrior Wu Yen, she goes after Qi in an attempt to force Wu Yen to abandon her plans. And as the saying goes, hilarity and hijinks ensue.

“Wu Yen” was not made for me. I like Hong Kong comedy, but I do have my limits. Everything in “Wu Yen” is played for laughs, from the silly premise of Gods and Fairies to the accepted theory that because Wu Yen has a sort of “KISS”-like red mark over her right eye she’s suddenly “ugly”. For that matter, the fact that Anita Mui (“Enforcer”) is supposed to be a man is hard enough to swallow, but I’m still perplexed by the decision to cast her in the first place. Of course it’s supposed to be funny having a woman play a man, and having other women in the movie throw themselves at him/her, but outside of Hong Kong I’m afraid no one will “get” that it’s all supposed to be inspired casting.

Cecilia Cheung (“Fly Me to Polaris”) spends the bulk of the movie playing the mischievous enchantress, who skips and hops around doing babytalk to Mui’s emperor. While the prospect of having the lovely Cecilia in close physical proximity to another woman intrigues the guy in me, Anita Mui’s take on playing a man — she contorts her face, bugs out her eyes, and does something weird with her mouth a lot — pretty much puts the kibosh on that notion. As the lead, Sammi Cheng (“Infernal Affairs”) probably fares the worst, mostly because she’s forced to play the straight man in a movie filled with over-the-top actors and characters. In another movie, Cheng has the makings of a real actor.

Directors Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai (“Fulltime Killer”) shoots all of “Wu Yen” as one big comedy sitcom episode gone over its allotted 30 minutes. There are a lot of goofy sound effects, silly scene transitions, and the special effects look cheap on purpose. The locations consist of big sets like the emperor’s court, his rooms, etc. There are some excursions into the countryside, but the bulk of the film takes place on elaborate sound stages that doesn’t try to hide that they’re elaborate sound stages.

The screenplay is filled with the type of jokes and comedy routines that Hong Kong Theater is known for. Unless you are used to this type of comedy, you will be scratching your heads and wondering what the heck is going on. It does take a moment to realize that the whole thing is played as one big cartoon, with a different take on the accepted legend of how the first Emperor of China came to unite the country under one flag. As previously mentioned, the story is told from a much more somber perspective in “Hero”, but even that movie takes liberties with the real Qi and what happened after the forced unification of his country.

“Wu Yen” has no serious bone in its body, and I appreciated that it didn’t try to mix comedy with drama and violence. It’s all screwball comedy from beginning to end, and those used to its brand of humor will have a ball.

Johnnie To, Ka-Fai Wai (director) / Ka-Fai Wai, Ben Wong, Nai-Hoi Yau (screenplay)
CAST: Sammi Cheng …. Wu Yen
Cecilia Cheung …. Enchantress/Yinchun
Anita Mui …. Emperor Qi

Buy Wu Yen on DVD