'Lost in Hong Kong' ('Gang Jiong'): Film Review

Lost in Hong Kong Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment
A sporadically enjoyable mash-up of gags and genre tropes.

Chinese actor-director Xu Zheng's follow-up to his 2012 record-breaker, 'Lost in Thailand,' unleashes a frustrated bra designer and a wannabe filmmaker on the streets of Hong Kong.

Revolving around a married man's tortuous romp across the titular Asian metropolis to meet his first love, Lost in Hong Kong is, well, lost on many different levels. Just as as its protagonist is constantly forced off his course by forces he couldn't control, screenwriter-director Xu Zheng  who also stars in the leading role — has cast his midlife crisis comedy astray with a scatterbrained mix of wildly divergent styles.

Far less coherent, structured and engaging than his previous fish-out-of-water farce, the massive 2012 hit Lost in ThailandXu's latest is best enjoyed as a relentless stream of visual gags. Meanwhile, those who grew up on Hong Kong's pop music and films — with Xu possibly among them — might treat this as a swirling homage to golden years gone by.

It's a canny mix which appeals to nearly every demographic, with its mammoth financial returns since its Sept. 24 release in China — with takings of $107 million over its opening weekend there — proof of the market wisdom of Xu and his producers. (The film has also generated much traction with a day-to-date limited release in the U.S., with more sites to follow on Oct 2.)

Read More Box Office: 'Hotel Transylvania 2' Sets September Record With $47.5M; 'Intern' Solid No. 2

Living up to its title, Lost in Hong Kong is mired in its myriad references to the city's cultural touchstones. There are gross-out plot devices which wouldn't be out of place in the work of schlock-meister Wong Jing (who appears here as himself in a cameo) or nonsensical humor a la Stephen Chow's comedies. Meanwhile, the lead character's melancholic yearning for lost love bears the hallmarks of Wong Kar-wai's films, an ethos channeled — seriously or in jest — through a smattering of lines from Wong's As Tears Go By, or an amorous meeting set up in a hotel room numbered 2046 (a reference to Wong's film, 2046). That's not to mention the local veterans on board, such as production designer Man Lim-chung and action choreographer Chin Ka-lok.

But casting a long shadow on Xu's film are the many nostalgia-drenched coming-of-age dramas that have taken Chinese cinemas by storm in recent years. And like So Young or Fleet of TimeLost in Hong Kong begins in the past. In 1994, the long-haired fine arts student Xu Lai (Xu) begins dating Yang Yi (a blank turn from Du Juan, American Dreams in China). He loves Van Gogh and dreams of living in Provence; she likes Warhol and his way of subverting norms in classical art. In a wordless sequence backed by a Hong Kong ballad, their short, sweet courtship unfolds as they paint film billboards together, endure slapstick-heavy failures to get intimate and finally separate when Yang leaves to further her studies in Hong Kong.

Enter Cai Bo (Vicki Zhao, the A-lister who directed So Young), a business management student who also happens to be the scion of a thriving undergarment business. Again, through a dialogue-free montage closely resembling the lives-in-fast-forward sequence prologue of UpXu and Cai date, marry and set up home. Gone are Xu's flowing locks and also his dreams, as he is shown adapting to life as a middle-class executive, a humdrum addition to his wife's clan and a hard-working heir to her family business.

Read More 'The Dead End' ('Lie ri zhuo xin'): Film Review

But the daintiness soon comes to an abrupt halt as the film moves to the present day, with Xu receiving a text message from Yang about her upcoming blockbuster art exhibition in Hong Kong. A loud and brash title credit sequence later, the man wakes up on the last day of his seven-day stay in the city to find Cai straddling him in a very pragmatic and clinical attempt to get pregnant. Leaving bed in his leopard-print boxers, he is ambushed by Cai's brother Cai Lala (Bao Bei'er), a film geek trying to cook up a documentary with footage and interviews of members of his own family. At breakfast, Cai's parents, brothers and sister-in-law crack crass jokes about his name, his appearance and his reproductive abilities.

Such jolting leaps from wistfulness to wackiness are repeated throughout the film as Xu begins his ill-fated day, during which he, with Lala in tow, fumbles his way toward that clandestine rendezvous with Yang. Just like Lala, who could declare his love of documentarians Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov one minute and then go scatological the next, Lost in Hong Kong is one conflicted beast. It flirts with the action-thriller genre with its subplot of Xu being pursued by two local cops (Sam Lee and Eric Kot) investigating a murder and the cracking action choreography that entails. It also plays with tropes of family melodrama through Xu's showdown with his oppressive in-laws, but their characters are too brief and caricatured to merit a major meltdown.

Cringe-worthy or base as the humor might sometimes be, Lost in Hong Kong refrains from drawing easy laughs via pot-shots at the city and its culture. The appearance of over-the-top cops, mobsters and prostitutes serve more as tributes to the archetypes in Hong Kong cinema, rather than representations of the social fabric of the city. In fact, the subtle cultural jokes here are aimed more at the director's fellow mainlanders, with subtle remarks here and there about the behavior and consumption habits of tourists in Hong Kong.

Production companies: Beijing Joy Leader Culture and Communication, in a co-presentation with Beijing Enlight Pictures, Shannan Guangxian Pictures, Beijing PULIN Production

Cast: Xu Zheng, Bao Beier, Vicki Zhao, Du Juan

Director: Xu Zheng

Screenwriter: Xu Zheng, Shu Huan, Su Liang, Zhao Yingzhun, Ying Aina

Producers: Xu Zheng, with Liu Liu, Li Xiaoping

Executive producers: Wang Changtian, Liu Ruifang, Wei Qiyung

Director of photography: Song Xiaofei

Production designer: Man Lim-chung

Editor: Tu Yiran

Music: Peng Fei

Action director: Chin Ka-lok

US distributor: Well Go USA

In Mandarin and Cantonese

No rating; 114 minutes