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Machi Action
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by Jay Seaver

"A super-hero spoof without cynicism."
4 stars

SCREENS AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: This movie seems like it has no business being as good as it is - it's a sweet, goofy thing that makes occasional ventures into crude adult territory, and the world of tokukatsu action it's set in demands either a love of camp or nostalgia from the audience, and those aren't particularly my things. And yet, here I am laughing my tail off and finding that I love everything it represents.

It introduces us to TieNan ("Wilson" Chen Bo-lin), the star of Space Hero Fly!, a once-popular kid's program on Taiwanese TV that always ends with the hero yelling "Transform!", growing to huge size, and battlling a guy in a rubber suit while knocking over a scale model of Taipei. The creature is always played by TieNan's best friend, the aptly-nicknamed "Monster" (Chiu Yang-Shiang), who runs a noodle shop on the side. It's not a bad gig, and maybe someday TieNan will ask make-up girl Jingfen (Chen Ting-hsuan) out. Before he can, though, disaster strikes - Chairman Su, who has kept the show on the air despite poor ratings, passes away, and while his daughter Ying Ying ("Puff" Kuo Xue-fu) won't outright cancel the show, she will call in consultants from Japan to refresh it, including killing off Fly and replacing bringing in pop star FACE ("Owodog" Zhuang Ao-quan) as the new star.

While all that's going on, there's a band of criminals robbing events and shops frequented by children, and you don't even have to hear TieNan's narration about how he always took pride in doing his own stunts to know where that's going to lead. But that's okay; it gives the filmmakers room to let TieNan and company engage in some funny misadventures as he tries to apply the one thing he knows how to do well to other fields of endeavor. An accidental foray into porn or a surprisingly successful stint on a home-shopping channel doesn't have to result in TieNan accidentally creating his worst enemy or putting himself into a hole that he must rise out of - they can just be very funny, because the climax is waiting.

Of course, what's going on between the gags in those scenes is important; they bring out some fairly important aspects of the character. That the movie does so while remaining upbeat isn't particularly surprising; writer Giddens Ko was behind last year's You Are the Apple of My Eye, which managed the same mix of being very funny while also being unabashedly sentimental. And while "sentimental" can often be a dirty word to certain audiences, it needn't be, so long as it's dispensed with the wit that Ko, director Chang Shih-lin, and their cast bring to this movie. The trick is to make sure that characters can be optimistic without being stupid or willingly blind; it doesn't hurt if there's a bit of nuance to the characters, either.

The cast certainly carries their end of the weight. Nuance may not be the best word for what Chen Bo-lin brings to TieNan, but there is certainly a winning sincerity to the guy and how he believes in what he's doing even when he doesn't necessarily believe in himself. Mr. Chen keeps the audience in TieNan's corner even when the script maybe requires his innocence to seem a little too childish, and he's also game for any sort of physical comedy the movie throws his way. It doesn't hurt that he gets to play off Chiu Yang-shiang, whose Monster is presented as being as scruffy as TieNan is still-handsome, with a cigarette always dangling from his mouth and a cynical comment on his lips (though never enough venom to make him actually mean). They're an odd couple that's always fun to watch on-screen, and the rest of the cast is nice, too: Chen Ting-hsuan is mainly sweet, but never a bland love interest, and works as part of a trio with Chen & Chiu just as well as she does with Chen alone. And Owodog seems to have a great time being as arrogant and obnoxious as he can as FACE without turning into an actual villain.

And that FACE isn't actually evil is kind of important, as one of the truly refreshing things about Machi Action is the way it comments on the darkening of pop culture in general without being a scold: There's something understatedly perfect at how TieNan walks into the revised Space Hero Fly! set and sees a darker sky and an already ravaged city and his face says that there's something not right about it without the need for words. Flashbacks to his childhood, along with the way Ying Ying returns to an old episode of Fly! when she needs a little reassurance quietly point out that it's okay for things to sometimes be simple or upbeat, especially when they were made for kids to start with, and adding this sort of violence and "realism" may bring in a bigger crowd, but might cause it to lose something vital. And while it may sometimes feel like Ying Ying is willfully destroying her father's legacy, she's also just following the bottom line.

In that way, Space Hero Fly! is enough like real pop culture, and it's nice that Chang and company don't exaggerate it too much to make it work. Sure, there's a bit off camp to Fly! and a bit of exaggerated edge to Space Hero FACE, but the costumes and design actually work quite well - anyone creating a fly-based superhero would be well-advised to look at the design for this one to see how to evoke its namesake without it turning creepy or gross. It's one of a number of ways that the filmmakers are able to have some fun with the absurdity of the concept while not just recognizing it draw but embracing how they love it from early on.

It's an impressive accomplishment, actually, not just straddling a line between smart and silly but leaping to be both at the same time. The silly is what's up front, and the movie is fully enjoyable for it alone, but it could have been a very cynical or hollow sort of farce without the head and heart that the filmmakers give it.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25424&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/29/13 23:42:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jeff Chang

Written by
  Giddens Ko

Cast
  Bo-Lin Chen
  Vivian Hsu
  Owodog



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