Fat Buddies (胖子行动队, Bao Bei’er, 2018)

Fat Buddies posterChinese cinema hasn’t exactly had the best record when it comes to dealing with atypical heroes, but then no cinema really has. Gazing at the poster for Fat Buddies (胖子行动队, Pàngzi Xíngdòng Duì) – the debut directorial feature from actor Bao Beier who also stars, one can’t help but assume the next two hours will be one long joke at the protagonists’ expense, but to its credit Fat Buddies is not (entirely) the film it seems to be and, ironically enough, there is more going on beneath the surface than an excuse to have at a “permissible” target.

The hero, played by Bao Beier himself, is a very rotund security guard currently working in a hospital in Tokyo for reasons which will (mostly) be explained later. Though Hao is a cheerful and friendly man with a strong sense of justice, he is ostracised by the (strangely large number of) other guards and has no real friends save his extraordinarily beautiful Japanese wife. Hao’s life changes forever one day when another large Chinese man calling himself “J” arrives at the hospital and causes a ruckus by trying to escape without paying. J convinces Hao that he is an international super spy on a top secret mission and that he needs Hao’s help to get out of the hospital so he can save the world. Believing he is finally being given the chance to become the agent of justice he’s always dreamed of being, Hao is only too eager to oblige.

Strangely enough, the entire film takes place in Tokyo even though the heroes and antagonists are all Chinese. Even so, it never resorts to the comedic caricatures common in recent mainland cinema when depicting the Japanese with even the police characterised as dedicated and efficient if sometimes a little overzealous and misguided, though one does wonder if the setting was chosen solely for the sumo associations of the grand finale. There is however a degree of bite in Hao’s view of himself as a non-Japanese person living in Japan who is married to a Japanese citizen and speaks the language fluently but still remains an outsider both because of his unusual appearance and because of his nationality (with a mild implication from some that perhaps the two things are not entirely unrelated). In an early set piece, Hao and J find themselves trying to infiltrate an upscale party where they have unwittingly stolen the clothes of a pair of famous dancers and eventually end up improvising a strange routine to a bawdy song which is all about being a “foreigner” in Japan who “doesn’t understand Japanese but loves Sora Aoi” and then continues in a similarly lowbrow vein with a mix of Mandarin, international English, and intentionally broken Japanese.

Rather than a two hour fat joke – though there are a fair few of those in a recurrent motif of J getting stuck in things Pooh-style and losing his trousers in the process, the the major message is that the pair are fine as they are and apart from the aforementioned problem, their size is not a barrier to being able to do anything they want including taking on international spy missions. Despite his happy marriage, Hao still suffers from loneliness and low self-esteem due to a lifetime of being looked down and on belittled, unable to make friends because of prevalent social stigma towards those on the heavier side. The solution, however, is not a makeover or a crash diet but a gradual process towards Hao regaining his sense of self worth and realising he has plenty to offer the world despite what anyone else might say. Similarly J, who experienced rapid weight gain after a life threatening injury and also suffers from narcolepsy, proves that he is still able to do his job even if he benefits from having a partner around when he randomly falls asleep at inopportune moments.

Fat Buddies isn’t claiming to be high art and there is certainly enough of the low humour the title implies to keep those enticed by the poster happy enough, but there is also genuine heart in its odd couple buddy comedy as the two similarly under-appreciated big guys bond in their shared desire to reclaim their sense of dignity and refuse to be shamed or belittled just because of their size (even if they are otherwise quite bumbling and inefficient in their mission). Strangely uplifting, Fat Buddies is an extremely silly comedy starring two men in fat suits repeatedly bumping into things but like its heroes refuses to be bound by stereotypical conventions and manages to make heartwarming drama out of its admittedly ridiculous premise. 


Fat Buddies is currently on limited release in UK Cinemas.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2016)

phantom-of-the-theatreNo ghosts! That’s one of the big rules when it comes to the Chinese censors, but then these “ghosts” are not quite what they seem and belong to the pre-communist era when the people were far less enlightened than they are now. One of the few directors brave enough to tackle horror in China, Raymond Yip Wai-man goes for the gothic in this Phantom of the Opera inspired tale of love and the supernatural set in bohemian ‘30s Shanghai, Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Mó Gōng Mèi Yǐng). As expected, the thrills and chills remain mild as the ghostly threat edges closer to its true role as metaphor in a revenge tale that is in perfect keeping with the melodrama inherent in the genre, but the full force of its tragic inevitability gets lost in the miasma of awkward CGI and theatrical artifice.

Shanghai was a swinging, cosmopolitan town in the 1930s. A multicultural melting pot it was both a business centre and a bohemian paradise in which the Chinese film industry flourished. Aspiring film director Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) has just returned from studying in France and is looking for an actress to star in his first project. Attempting to hand his script to the winner of the local awards ceremony, Weibang’s plan is frustrated by some awkward political shenanigans between an older actress, a younger one, and the patron that’s trying to abandon one woman for the other, but Weibang is soon to have more problems on his plate connected to the series of strange deaths which have begun to occur in the “haunted” theatre in which he wants to shoot his upcoming masterpiece.

The mystery element fades relatively quickly as we’re introduced to the very human villain who does, however, behave in an appropriately phantom fashion as he appears and disappears in various locations around the ruined theatre, making use of secret passages and hidden doorways to put his dastardly plan into action. The main thrust of the narrative is the gothic romance between Weibang and his leading actress Meng Si-fan (Ruby Lin) which is complicated both by his existing girlfriend (the pathologist working on the mysterious theatre deaths) and the spectre of the long buried past. The fire which destroyed the theatre 13 years previously resulting in the deaths of a troupe of acrobats lies at the centre of the mystery but places the two lovers on different sides of an unbridgeable divide as powerless bystanders in the newly post feudal world.

Weibang wants to make films about the things people can’t say – an interesting meta comment given that ghosts are still taboo all these years later, but the irony is that film is a seductive dream, a distraction from the reality, a haunted theatre all of its own. Dreams, reality, and cinema begin to overlap as Weibang finds himself playing the leading man and falling for the leading lady in a tragic supernatural romance whilst his creepy setting continues to give up its own ghosts. In the end the only ghosts Weibang and Si-fan will have to deal with are ones of their own pasts. Faced with a final showdown, long buried truths are finally revealed and choices made but the bittersweet ending leaves us on a positive note as those concerned discover the power of forgiveness – that forgiving others is an act of kindness to oneself and revenge little more than the theft of your own life in pointless pursuit of retribution.

Yip places the emphasis on his visuals with a sumptuous, truly gothic aesthetic filled with faded grandeur, Western architecture, and candle lit rooms perfect for suggestive shadows and ghosts which lurk in mirrors. Though occasionally plagued with poor quality CGI and leaning towards theatrical artificiality in its studio bound look, Phantom of the Theatre does succeed in building a generally creepy atmosphere even if failing to reach the giddy heights of China’s finest take on the material so far – A Song at Midnight. Despite the solid visuals, Phantom of the Theatre never achieves the levels of doomladen fatalism and inexorable malevolence which the genre demands nor does it succeed in making its central romance truly matter lending it a slightly underwhelming quality. Still, the impressive visuals and melancholy tone make for a charmingly old fashioned ghost story in which the haunting is all too real.


Original trailer (Mandarin with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)