'Pancake Man': Film Review

PANCAKE MAN Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Sohu Video

PANCAKE MAN Still - H 2015

Non-Chinese audiences will be left hungry  

As meta as it gets: This Chinese comedy is a film directed by its star, about an actor making a film about a superhero.

While only sporadically funny, the film has nevertheless attracted record audiences in China, with a reported 10-day gross of $139 million since its July 24 opening for producer-distributor Sohu TV and around $400,000 on 14 screens in the U.S. China's unofficial "blackout" of Hollywood studio films for a few weeks this summer has also helped Pancake Man become the second-highest-opening Chinese film in the country's history.

Read more Chinese Superhero Comedy 'Pancake Man' Gets North America, Australia, NZ Release Date

Slight of build and plain-looking — but sporting trendy glasses, a moussed undercut and hipster outfits — protagonist Da Peng is a beloved TV star who sometimes makes very stupid decisions. One night after pledging his undying love to his fiancee, he acts on an impulse to hit the clubs, and is not only thrown out on the street, but manages to brawl with a mob and get captured on video kissing a random woman. Oh, and that priceless diamond ring he bought for his fiancee was eaten by a golden retriever.

Da's career hits the skids, his fiancee stops calling, and he's in hock to mafioso Wang Hai (Liang Chao), so the desperate star decides to claw his way back to the top by shooting a superhero movie starring himself. The project is so low-budget that Da has to assemble an all-volunteer crew, and the only way they can get Hong Kong celebrities like actress Sandra Ng and director Eric Tsang to appear in the film is to kidnap them on the street.

In one scene, struggling filmmaker Da is so broke that he resorts to emceeing a lavish funeral, with his pals overacting as melodramatic paid mourners. This Pancake Man can't fly through the air without the help of stunt wires; his yellow superhero suit has bulges in the wrong places; and his most deadly weapon is a well-aimed raw egg. 

Read more China Box Office: Record Weekend for Local Films as 'Monster Hunt', 'Pancake Man' Open Big

Actor-director Da Peng became a star with a hit web series called Diors Man, a Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy show hosted by Sohu TV (the company that has released Pancake Man in Chinese theaters).

He was also the host of The Da Peng Show, which made headlines in the U.S. in 2012 when TBS host Conan O'Brien accused him of plagiarizing his distinctive animated credit sequence.

Unlike China's CGI-rich Monkey King superhero film franchise (whose sequel is currently battling Pancake Man at the box office), this film has the feel of a sitcom. Its homegrown success does not translate well to overseas audiences: the broadly comic antics of Da's crew are only mildly amusing, and the film's garish production design and generic music distract from some genuinely touching scenes of Da and his crew (Yuan Shanshan, Yi Yunhe) bonding over their adversity. A tongue-in-cheek cameo by Jean-Claude Van Damme provides a brief diversion.

Production: Wanda Pictures, Tianjin Golden Fox Culture, New Classics Media
Cast: Da Peng, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Ada Liu, Mabel Yuan, Eric Tsang, Sandra Ng, Deng Chan, Yuan Shanshan, Yi Yunhe, Liang Chao
Director-screenwriter: Da Peng
Director of photography: Danny Chen
Editor: Tu Yiran
Composer: Zhao Yingjun

No MPAA rating, 113 minutes