Switch: Shanghai Film Festival Review

Andy Lau in "Switch"
It's back to basics in a glossy, campy 3D spy film set between Asia and the Middle East

Hong Kong star Andy Lau adds kung fu to China’s answer to James Bond

While the James Bond franchise has started to focus on character development and serious acting, China’s entry into the international espionage market, Switch, gets back to basics with an army of sexy female assassins guarding an invincible villain, futuristic electronics used without budget worries and the world’s most expensive branded cars and hotels – plus a great deal of acrobatic kung fu.

As directed by producer-turned-filmmaker Jay Sun Jianjun, the overall effect is more retro camp than cutting edge, accounting for the critical beating the film has taken since its June 7 release. Yet the film’s detractors have caused few injuries at the box office: the movie soared to the top until being deposed by Man of Steel this weekend. The reason is probably that, in spite of its far-fetched plotting, blatant product placement, outré characters and set design, etc., Switch is still an amusing, well-produced two-hour romp through Asia and the Middle East with jaw-dropping set pieces filmed in Dubai, China and Tokyo.

The movie can also bank on the power of craggy-faced Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau, who at 51 has lost none of his charismatic screen appeal. In the role of a larger-than-life secret agent whose mission, entrusted to him by the mysterious "F,"  is to unite two halves of a priceless scroll in time for an international shindig, he references not only 007 (evident from the opening credits onward) but also Tom Cruise’s skyscraper stunts in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, all in an Asian martial arts idiom.

The action begins in Dubai, where a nasty band of British evil-doers plans to steal an ancient scroll long ago torn into two parts. One half is stored in an art museum in China, the other in Taiwan, and they are to be officially reunited in a joint Chinese-Taiwanese exhibition which serves as a background countdown to the action. Competing for the treasure is the main villain of the piece, the young Japanese yakuza boss Yamamoto (Tong Daiwei), sporting a long blond pony-tail and living in a gadget- and girl-filled mansion that would make Goldfinger feel the need to redecorate.    

Though the Taipei museum looks like the Fortress of Solitude, it’s child’s play for the Brits’ radio-controlled drone to open the roof like a can-opener, deactivate the sensors and make the heist. Yamamoto’s squadron of acrobatic women in black catsuits also turn up on ropes, but they are temporarily defeated. Interpol agent Xiao Jinhan (Lau) and Lin Yuyan (Zhang Jingchu), the agent for a global insurance company who happens to be his attractive wife and the mother of his son Baobao, are in charge of retrieving the missing half of the scroll and safeguarding the one in China.

The first stop is a lavish banquet thrown by a disturbing old lady called the Empress (Siqin Gaowa), who is also interested in the painting and who offers to help Yamamoto. But instead of following her, agent Xiao is ordered by F to fly to Dubai, where he will be working with a glamorous new partner, Lisa (Lin Chiling). In spite of Xiao's chaste wedded state, she serves as his chief love interest. Xiao gallantly solves the issue with the memorable line, “My heart is fully booked, but my body is still taking reservations.”  Still he nobly resists Lisa’s charms, which Lin takes beyond seduction to hint at a bit of real feeling for the guy.  In comparison, in the fairly thankless role of Xiao’s wife, sensitive actress Zhang Jingchu feels more like a police teammate as she fights by his side in an emergency.

Interestingly, there are no on-camera sex scenes in the film; even Yamamoto’s perverted taste for Oedipal S&M with a giant portrait of his mother hovering in the background is conveyed through suggestive costumes and poses.

Writer-director Sun has a playful feeling for kitsch and alternates the traditional Chinese elegance of Hangzhou and Fuyang with Dubai landmarks like the Burj Al Khalifa building and the Burj Al Arab and Atlantis Palm luxury hotels, the site of an anthology-worthy car chase through the hotel that has to be seen to be believed. The Disneyland-like style of the Middle Eastern locations jives perfectly with the film’s basic pop aesthetic of decadence and hedonism. In this vein, the near-constant display of the female body in cheesy, barely-there costumes seems aimed at getting a laugh as much as titillating the audience.  But in the long run, the over-abundance of deadly beauties in stiletto heels and transparent mini-skirts pulls down the quality considerably, even in the finely choreographed fight scenes credited to Robert Francis Brown and Zhang Peng.   

Venue:  Shanghai Film Festival (Focus China), June 21, 2012
Production companies: Beijing Pegasus & Taihe Ubiquitous Intl., China Film Co., Media Asia Film Production   
Cast:  Andy Lau, Chiling Lin, Tong Daiwei, Zhang Jingchu

Director:  Jay Sun
Screenwriter:  Jay Sun
Producers:  Shen Xue, Zhao Haicheng, Lorraine Ho
Executive producers:  Zhao Minghui
,Han Sanping, Jay Sun, Peter Lam
Director of photography:  Dan Shao
Production designer: Otto Cui
Music: Roc Chen
Costume designer:  
Lawrence Xu
Editor:  Du Hengtao
Sales:  Media Asia
No rating,  122 minutes.