“You gotta give everything to get everything” according to an intense rocker in Johnnie To’s musical boxing romance, Chasing Dream (我的拳王男友). What turns out to be most important however is not physical endurance but emotional authenticity, if you want to be taken seriously then you have to take yourself seriously first and that means learning to find the courage to embrace your authentic self. A tale of two crazy kids chasing the Chinese Dream, To’s colourful fantasy world is not without its bite as he leans in hard to what it costs to succeed and not in what is often a merciless society.
Our hero Tiger (Jacky Heung Cho), “The Gluttonous Boxer”, is a young man who broke with his boxing master to step into the MMA ring but is also an enforcer for a shady local loansharking gang run by his manager. Aware he is approaching the end of his career – a doctor later tells him he’s in danger of going blind, rupturing his liver, and getting Parkinson’s – Tiger’s life changes one day when he recognises one of the ring girls, Cuckoo (Wang Keru), as the granddaughter of an old woman who used to sell noodles back when he studied boxing in his rural hometown. Unfortunately, Tiger’s boss has also recognised her because she is in deep debt with the mob. Some of the guys want to cut their losses and sell her on to the sex trade but Tiger, seemingly indifferent, claims he can find her a way to work off her debt and thereby kickstarts his rescue not only of her but of himself from the increasingly empty life of an ageing prize fighter.
What he discovers is that Cuckoo is harbouring intense resentment over being seduced and betrayed by one of China’s biggest pop stars who made himself a name as the “king of originality” after stealing all of her songs and leaving her in the lurch. Qu Fengfeng (Ma Xiaohui) is now a judge on China’s biggest TV singing competition Perfect Diva and Cuckoo has a plan to confront him by getting on the show, the only snag being that she is extremely unpolished as a performer. Tiger, meanwhile, wants to get out of the ring and has a plan to start his own hotpot empire essentially by copying all the best bits of the major chains and bringing them together. He vows to help Cuckoo train by having her mimic the performance styles of major stars, but what she quickly discovers is that there is no substitute for emotional authenticity. A fellow constant decides to switch her routine at the last minute after catching sight of Cuckoo rehearsing, but is unceremoniously voted off by judges who’d rather she “performed a tacky fan dance” (as she was originally planning to do) than simply copycatting famous artists. Challenged that her songs are too similar to Qu Fengfeng’s Cuckoo snaps back that it’s his style that’s close to hers, earning the admiration of astute female judge Zhao Ying (Wu Yitong) who can perhaps detect the artist inside her beginning to free itself from her sense of insecurity.
Achieving your dreams can however come at a heavy cost. Pearl “the kick ass rocker” (Kelly Yu Wenwen) has an intense, aggressive performance style but in a running gag turns up at each consecutive audition with a new incapacity, eventually using a wheelchair and wearing a back brace only able to move her arms. “Totally worth it in the name of music!” she cheerfully explains, literally destroying herself to get to the top. Tiger does something much the same exploited as he is by his unscrupulous gangster manager, shouting out “it doesn’t hurt” as he trains by having people jump on his belly, but the battering he takes is not so much for himself as for others, stepping back into the ring in defence first of Cuckoo and then of his dejected master, Ma Qing (Shao Bing), whose attempt to defend the dignity of the noble art of boxing against the modern upstart MMA goes horribly wrong. But Tiger cannot fight others’ battles for them, and the only way he can win is by being himself while honouring their legacy.
Finally finding how to bare their souls for all to see and “have someone share the fatigue of loneliness”, the pair learn to recalibrate their dreams while falling in love discovering that mutual support is their guiding light as they give each other the strength to be all they can be. Ostensibly somewhere in Mainland China, To’s make believe, retro future city has a colourful comic book intensity that adds a mythic quality to the saga of Tiger and Cuckoo that is perfectly in tune with his dreamy romanticism in which sudden flights of fancy including a full-blown Bollywood-style dance sequence seem entirely natural. A surprisingly moving, wilfully absurd musical love story between wildly grinning pugilist and a young woman learning to sing from the the heart, Chasing Dream is a delightful sugar pop confection in which two crazy kids find love in the ring and with it the power to believe in themselves and a better future.
Original trailer (Cantonese, no subtitles)