Horseplay (Dao Ma Ji): Filmart Review

Hong Kong Filmart
Flimsy Hong Kong crime comedy makes Inspector Clouseau look sophisticated.

Tony Leung Ka Fai leads a merry chase as a Pink Panther-like international arts smuggler.

There are more smiles than laughs in Horseplay, a goofy Chinese-Hong Kong take-off on international heist and sting yarns that aspires to salute the spirit of the Pink Panther. The link is made explicit in its oft-used arrangement of Henry Mancini’s catchy tango It Had Better Be Tonight, better known as the Pink Panther theme. But apart from a likable cast headlining Tony Leung Ka-fai, this frothy concoction from veteran writer-director Lee Chi-Ngai is short on invention and has a plot that hangs together by clothes-pins, making it hard to recommend to audiences outside of Asia. Coming in Mandarin and Cantonese language versions, its simple, good-humored and uncontroversial comedy should hit the spot more in China than in seen-it-in-the-Eighties Hong Kong.

Leung (The Lover), playing older than his 56 summers, cracked three ribs performing a stunt in the film, which may be the reason his character Nine-Tailed Fox suddenly begins hopping around on one foot, an amusing piece of body language he pulls off spectacularly well. Fox is a master thief and master of disguises, each one more improbable than the last.

The first character introduced is Mui (fine comedienne Kelly Chen), an attractively athletic rock climber and host of an airhead TV entertainment show who wants to do serious journalism. She gets her chance when her channel sends her to London to track a priceless artwork that is missing, apparently stolen by a gang of international thieves: a Sancai horse from the Tang dynasty. 

Wearing a black dress with big yellow polka dots, she’s hardly inconspicuous as she attends an exclusive Mayfair auction, twirling around to show her cohort the view through a hidden camera inside her plastic flower brooch. She attracts the attention of beaming young Hong Kong Inspector Cheung Ho (Ekin Cheng), who smokes a Sherlock Holmes pipe and who may not be exactly what he seems. Ditto the strange lady in pink who bustles past Mui in the bathroom – actually our first glimpse of Fox in transvestite disguise (he later appears as a nun in blackface, among other disguises.)  A wacky but competent pair of art experts played by popular actor and producer Eric Tsang and young TV actor Wong Cho-lam offer comic relief to the comedy.

The director’s focus is on keeping the action moving at a fast clip and in this he succeeds. Little billboards appear on screen each time the story shifts from Hong Kong to London to Prague to the French Riviera. While Mui is clumsily trailing Fox, peeping out from behind street posts and the like, he and his cronies are making use of her to carry a shipment of “red mercury”, a McGuffin never fully explained, to exchange for the priceless horse. The Prague scenes mostly take place in an animated haunted house full of flying pigs, not to mention two beautiful twin contract killers out to do Fox in. All Lee Chi-Ngai’s screenplay has to do is keep mixing the cast of weird characters and the film almost shoots itself

Venue: Hong Kong Filmart, March 24, 2014

Production companies: Bona Film Group, Edko Films, Sil-Metropole Organisation, United Filmmakers Organization

Cast: Tony Leung Ka-fai, Kelly Chen, Ekin Cheng, Eric Tsang, Cho-lam Wong

Director:  Lee Chi-Ngai

Screenwriter: Lee Chi-Ngai

Producers: Cheung Chi Kwong, Lee Chi-Ngai

Executive producers: William Kong, Dai Song, Eric Tsang, Dong Yu

Director of photography: Wade Muller

Production designer: Chung Man Yee

Costumes: Dora Ng

Editor: Shirley (Yuen-ting) Yip

Music: Youki Yamamoto

Sales Agent: Edko Films (Asian territories)

No rating, 96 minutes.