When you think of Chinese cinema, a certain set of brothers typically come to mind. While foreign film has seen many significant offerings from the mainland and Hong Kong, it's the manic martial artistry of the siblings Shaw that draw the most attention. Of course, there's also the new wave of action heroes, from Jackie Chan to Jet Li, Stephen Chow to (insert latest red hot touted talent here). But as with all moviemaking, there is more to this particular Asian artform than roundhouse kicks, slo-mo gun battles, and death defying and re-defying stunts. Take Barbara Wong's clever comedy Happy Funeral. Like a John Hughes laugher from the '80s retrofitted into a post-millennial Chinese landscape, there is wit, warmth, and a last act overdose of manipulative schmaltz in this coming of age effort. The end result is actually something quite enjoyable - at least, for the first two-thirds of the running time.
Ji, Kay, Bonbon, Pang, 6 Wing and C Whan all live in the 6th Floor Rear Flat apartment run by elderly landlord Suzy. All hate working and wish they could quit their dead end jobs. Each also has dreams of being something special - a filmmaker, a rock star, a hip-hop impresario - and yet such success eludes them. But Suzy is always nearby with a bowl of sweet soup and a bit of worldly wisdom. When the grandmother of a friend dies, the gang decides to take on a new business venture. Tired of the way Hong Kong families mourn the death of a loved one, they come up with the idea of a "party" - otherwise known as the Happy Funeral. At first, mortician Mr. Man is not interested in the idea. But hoping to fulfill the wishes of his dead wife, he gives the kids a chance. Now, all they have to do is come up with a business proposal and a budget - that is, in between partying and playing videogames.
As a sequel to the sleeper hit Truth or Dare: 6th Floor Rear Flat, Happy Funeral certainly follows some very recognizable filmic formulas. We have the standard set of angst ridden young adults - the wannabe director, the wannabe rappers, the wannabe singer/songwriter, the wannabe journalist, etc. - and a high concept narrative clothesline (the title ritual) upon which to hang all their hopes and dreams. We have the understanding adult (octogenarian landlord Suzy), the outsider as implied villain (her money hungry son), and a businessman caught in the middle, liking the gang's upbeat take on death while hating the half-assed way they try to realize their aims. In between, characters fall in and out of each other's arms, an outsider with a tendency to get his ass kicked becomes a running gag, and conversations cover the basic drunken collective consciousness - money, sex, and bodily fluids. Had it not been filtered through a foreign location and culture, we'd probably be complaining about how clichéd it all is.
But watching these Hong Kong kiddies go through the mandatory movie maturation process is part of Happy Funeral's inherent joy. It's interesting to see the same old story situations played out in a different language and tradition. The scene where the group visits a friend's relative's wake is eye opening, considering how formal and rather boring it all is. Similarly, the finale, focusing on the title treatment of a major character's demise, is equally enthralling. From the obsession with Facebook to the videogame party where everyone in attendance silently taps away at their own personal Wii or DSL, this is a unique look a life as seen by someone clearly connected to the country's pop scene. Even the appearance of music sensation Lollipop reeks of insight into last decade's boy band bonanza. But that's the appeal here. Wong, whose resume includes the original 6th Floor Rear Flat film, understands the wayward wantonness of young people. Her characters, while often cut from cardboard, resonate with a kind of well-observed truth.
The movie does lose steam toward the end, right after a main protagonist falls ill. We kind of expect the plot to move in this direction, since it appears our roommates won't learn their lesson otherwise. But the forced nature of the confrontation with a seemingly soulless relative, and the "happiness = harmony" declaration needs a good 15 minutes before finding a few heartstrings. Since we've bought into most of what the movie is selling, we feel a solid tear or two welling up in our eyes. But once the angry funeral parlor owner shows up to celebrate his late wife's "dre...am" of a happy send-off, we've had enough. Sure, we want our merry band of slackers to have success, but the drawn out process toward such an achievement tends to undermine the fun we were having before. While not quite schizophrenic, Happy Funeral does shift gears in a rather whiplash manner during its final 30 minutes. It doesn't totally destroy what came before, but it does make the superficial hedonism on display appear rather callous.
Colorful and comprehensive, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks very good. Wong definitely goes overboard on the set design details, and the music video (MV) style she mimics throughout the numerous hip-hop spoofs does show up elsewhere in the film. Still, this is a good looking film, professionally made and very polished.
The language choices are actually rather interesting. Aurally, you can decide between Cantonese or Mandarin, both served up in a decent Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. The mix is good, if limited in its use of the back channels and overall speaker set-up. As for subtitles, we get to experience the film in either Chinese, simplified Chinese, or some rather awkward English. Outside some mangled noun/verb agreement, bad gender pronouns, and tense issues, the dialogue is discernible and well represented by the translation.
Sadly, all we get here is a trailer - and it's not even offered with subtitles. It does do a decent job of selling the film without giving too much away, at least visually.
Like an exotic beverage with a heady, almost intoxicating after effect, Happy Funeral is a very unique cinematic experience. If you can accept that last act sap, you'll thoroughly enjoy this Asian effort. If, on the other hand, you sense something saccharine inside the attempt to be serious, you'll probably dismiss the whole adventure in moviemaking. Clearly, what Barbara Wong accomplishes here deserves a Recommended rating. Anything higher would infer perfection that's not really there. Something lower would suggest a sloppiness and incompleteness that doesn't exit either. Sure, you'll see through many of the plot holes as director Wong channels everything '80s in her 'youth gone mild' sense of mayhem, and the characters have to work really hard to get us to care about their predicament. But in the end, we do enjoy the time we spend with them and their pie-in-the-sky optimism.
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