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'The Breakup Guru' ('Fen shou da shi'): Film Review

The Break-up Guru Deng Chao Mini Yang Still - H 2014
Enlight Pictures

The Bottom Line

Lowest-denominator crowd-pleaser in which crass humor rides roughshod over a brittle odd-couple romance.

Cast

Deng Chao, Mini Yang, Liang Chao, Liu An

Directors

Deng Chao, Yu Baimei

Chinese actor Deng Chao stars in his directorial debut as a professional heartbreaker who falls for his victim.

Many A-listers have used their directorial debuts simply to showcase their versatile acting chops, and mainland Chinese star Deng Chao has done the same — but in the worst possible way possible. Known at home for straight-faced dramatic roles — such as in the martial arts series The Four, or Peter Chan's reflections on contemporary Chinese society in American Dreams in China — Deng has plunged headlong into over-the-top farce with The Breakup Guru, in which he attempts to engage audiences with dallying with black face-paint, drag and metatextual gags about seducing his (real-life) actress wife into adultery and divorce.

It's not a pretty sight, and humor of such calibre basically drives The Breakup Guru, an adaptation of his co-director (and screenwriter) Yu Baimei's stage play about a professional heartbreaker trading in his sang-froid to accept his own sentimental side. Undeterred by this well-trodden narrative, Deng and Yu have delivered a ceaseless juggernaut of incoherently-strung together gags like a lightweight Stephen Chow; this could  make Adam Sandler, who could easily be imagined dabbling in something like this, look like a nuanced artist.

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That the film has defied Transformers: Age of Extinction's Chinese rompto rake in a staggering $77 million — one third that of Michael Bay's takings in the country — perhaps speaks as much about the desperate needs for easy entertainment among China's youthful demographic (whose school year has just ended) than its real quality. (The film's day-to-date, 12-screen release in the US is beyond lackluster, having just secured just over $147,000.)

One of The Break-up Guru'scalling cards is probably its lead actress Mini Yang, pop royalty in many a Chinese schoolgirl's hearts in his starring role in the hugely popular Tiny Times series - the third one of which is to unspool, so timely enough, on Jul. 17. To her credit, Yang has proved to be quite good sport in withstanding the on-screen mayhem and also her thinly-etched character here. Then again, she is always destined to be a sideshow to Deng's clownish antics, and their relationship as hackneyed as any of those being bandied around in the over-the-top melodrama of Tiny Times.

The film begins in Mauritius - shot on location, complete with sweeping aerial views of landscapes and all - and Mei Yuangui (Deng) is at work trying to woo a young woman by posing as the island's king, La Blaka. That this is a commission from well-known novelist Han Han (who appears as himself) leads to a series of introductory vignettes of the "break-up guru" and his past triumphs, all of which involving his ability to bring about break-ups even among well-known celebrities (one of which being his wife Betty Sun, who was caught fooling around with Mei dressed up as a young basketball player).

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It's such an ability which lands him a commission from Master Tang (Liang Chao), a quirky mega-rich motivational speaker who wants to get rid of his assistant-girlfriend Ye Xiaochun (Yang) so as to clear the way for his company's IPO. Starting off on the wrong foot, Mei and Ye would eventually find themselves fellow strugglers in the world, and bickering would of course make the hearts go fonder. But is Mei in this heart-giving business for real, and would his past come back to haunt him?

Not that anyone cares, of course --not even screenwriter Yu himself, who has transformed his decent play into something shapeless and ridden with a lack of logic. Maybe the film's title should simply be taken literally: this is all about getting viewers to break up, double up in laughter and leave their senses at the door. To resort to racial and gender-offensive pranks to get to that, however, has certainly relegated this film to the bottom drawer - a fact proved to be doubly disturbing given the lavish production design on show (the tropical sojourn, Master Tang's exquisite trappings, the finale at the Bird's Nest stadium which hosted ceremonies for the Beijing Olympiad). Money can't buy one love - or good taste, for that matter.

Venue: Public screening, Shenzhen, China

Production companies: Beijing Enlight Pictures, Tianjin Orange Image Media, Shannan Enlight Pictures, Shanghai Huixinghuiying Fillm and Television Culture

Cast: Deng Chao, Mini Yang, Liang Chao, Liu An

Directors: Deng Chao, Yu Baimei

Screenwriter: Yu Baimei, based on his play Fen shou da shi

Producer: Wang Changtian, Deng Chao, Qian Rui

Executive producer: Li Xiaoping

Director of photography: Du Jie

Production designer: Sun Li

Editor: Tu Yiran

Music: Wang Jie

Action director: Yuen Tak

US distributor: China Lion

In Mandarin

No rating; 116 minutes