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Chandni Chowk to China
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Curry On China"
4 stars

In what will surely go down as one of the more ill-advised business decisions made by a movie studio in recent years, Warner Brothers decided in August of 2008 that they were going to sell off the American distribution rights to Danny Boyle’s Bollywood-influenced film “Slumdog Millionaire” that they had purchased approximately a year earlier for $5 million--although they claimed at the time that they simply had too many pictures in the pipeline to release as the result of having acquired New Line Pictures and their remaining slate of films earlier in the year, it was said that the real reason was that they now had serious doubts about its commercial viability and seemed unsure as to how to sell it in the marketplace. Although the timing of this announcement, made just before the film was to premiere at the high-profile Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, couldn’t have been worse, the whole “Slumdog Millionaire” saga turned out to have an ending just as deliriously happy and unlikely as the one in the movie itself--Fox Searchlight took over the American distribution, the film became both a critical and popular hit and it is now arguably the front-runner in this year’s Oscar race. Having belatedly realized their mistake in letting the film slip through their fingers, Warners has now become the first studio to attempt to cash in on it success by rushing out their own Bollywood product into theaters in the hopes that audiences who were entranced by Boyle’s take on this unique form of filmmaking might also be intrigued by seeing a genuine example on the big screen in all of its surreal glory. As a result, this weekend sees the release of “Chandni Chowk to China,” a film that is arriving in more North American theaters and markets than any other Bollywood import to date just in time to ride on the coattails of “Slumdog Millionaire” as it prepares to expand even further across the land.

The film opens in a small village in China that, we learn in a prologue, was once defended long ago from any number of oppressors by a mighty warrior by the name of Liu Sheng. That, however, was a long time ago and nowadays, the village is ruled with an iron fist by the vicious and hateful Hojo (Gordon Liu) and its people are being forced by his minions to excavate the riches that lay beneath its land in order to fill his pockets. Clearly, there is only one thing for the townspeople to do--send a couple of representatives off in search for the reincarnated spirit of Liu Sheng and bring him back to the village so that he can rid them of Hojo and his men for good. Somehow, the representatives wind up in the Indian city of Chandni Chowk and determine that Sidhu (Akshay Kumar), a lowly vegetable cutter whose get-rich-quick schemes usually go up in flames (literally at one point) and land him at the business end of the foot of his loving-but-stern father (Mithun Chakravorty). Thanks to some creative translation supplied by sleazy con man buddy Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey), Sidhu agrees to go back with the strangers to China, not realizing that they expect him to rid them of Hojo once and for all.

After some initial difficulties leaving India--he is conned out of his exit pass by the beautiful and bewitching Sakhi (Deepika Padukone), a TV personality who needs to travel to the same village in order to pay tribute to the father and twin sister that she lost there when she was just an infant--Sidhu arrives and is hailed as a hero without ever quite catching on to why he is being celebrated. For a while, he is able to dodge Hojo and his men but eventually they arrive in town in order to beat him to a pulp and expose him as a fraud to the townspeople before tossing him over the Great Wall to his certain death. Inevitably, Sidhu is rescued at the last minute by Chiang (Roger Yuan), a homeless man whose own past conflict with Hojo left him so traumatized that he has no memory of his former life. Chiang helps to nurse Sidhu back to health and agrees to help train him in the ways of kung fu so that he can get revenge on Hojo. At the same time, Sidhu inadvertently helps unlock the mysteries of Chiang’s past and once the two of them have healed both physically and mentally, they are able to band together to take on Hojo and his men once and for all.

The basic plotline of “Chandni Chowk to China” may sound familiar enough to many viewers, especially if they have seen Stephen Chow’s hilarious action fantasy “Kung Fu Hustle”--but as with most Bollywood films, the story being told isn’t as important as the way that it is being told. For those unfamiliar with this particular style of filmmaking, Bollywood movies tend to be jumbo-sized cinematic stews in which any and all possible elements and approaches are thrown into the pot in a shameless attempt to curry favor with audiences. From a tonal standpoint, the film veers, often from scene to scene, from slapstick comedy to tear-jerking melodrama to high-powered action to gooey romance with such abandon that it often feels as if one is watching several different movies at the same time. As the film goes on (and on and on), the story offers us twists and turns involving long-lost family members, tragic deaths, training montages, gradually evolving flashback and even a few sequences when the characters burst into fully choreographed musical numbers because. . .well, because practically the only thing that they haven’t done yet is sing and dance. If you are wondering how a film can possibly cram so much material into a standard two-hour running time, it is because they don’t--“Chandni Chowk to China” clocks in at about 160 minutes and even that is on the short side since many Bollywood films tend to stretch past the three-hour mark.

Obviously, “Chandni Chowk to China” is being marketed in this country to audiences and critics with no working knowledge of Bollywood filmmaking (before the press screening that I attended, the publicist read a statement from the studio explaining what we were all in for) and my guess is that most of the resulting reviews will approach it more along the lines of a special event than as an individual film because they have nothing to compare it with. As it happens, thanks to film festivals, a local multiplex that regularly shows such films to a large and appreciative local audience and my willingness to sit through anything in order to spend several hours gawking at the astonishing beauty of Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai, I have actually seen a few Bollywood films over the years and can at least make a stab at making such comparisons. Compared to those, this one falls somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, it has some absolutely hilarious moments here and there (Sidhu’s misadventures on the plane taking him to China are so exquisitely timed that they reminded me of Jerry Lewis at his prime), a bunch of reasonably impressive fight scenes (with choreography from Huen Chiu-Ku, who also worked on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the “Kill Bill” films) and Deepika Padukone is so staggeringly beautiful that if there was ever call for an actress to play the part of Aishwarya Rai’s prettier sister, she might be the only person in the world who is completely qualified to play the role. On the other hand, like most Bollywood films, it does go on a little too long for its own good (even though it feels at times that it has been shortened for its North American release, it could still easily lose another half-hour or so simply by cutting down on all the various flashbacks and montages) and after building up to it for so long, the final battle between Sidhu and Hojo comes off as a bit of a disappointment.

That said, “Chandni Chowk to China” is still a pretty entertaining work for the most part despite its unevenness and for those who have never experienced an authentic Bollywood film before, it will serve as a perfectly good introduction to that style of filmmaking. If nothing else, perhaps the publicity surrounding its release (not to mention the ongoing success of “Slumdog Millionaire”) will inspire viewers in America to embark on further explorations into the genre on their own. To that end, I would like to take this opportunity to recommend one of my favorites, the 2001 epic “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India.” Set in 1890, it tells the story of a poor Indian village governed by the British who are unable to pay their taxes because of a bad crop season. In a show of faux-concern, the officer in charge offers up a deal to the townspeople. He and his men will play a game of cricket against the locals--if they win, the taxes will be forfeit but if they lose, they have to pay three times the amount. Of course, like most of the rest of the world, the locals have no idea of how to play the game but a young man agrees to take on the challenge and form a team to go up against the hated British. I wouldn’t dream of revealing what transpires but I will note that this is a 224-minute-long movie about cricket and I was absolutely spellbound from start to finish. If “Chandni Chowk to China” is a sampler plate that works best at whetting the appetite to the unusual flavors that come with the world of Bollywood filmmaking, then “Lagaan” is the kind of full-course meal that will leave you feeling satisfied for a long time afterwards.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18336&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/16/09 00:00:00
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1/12/10 Bill Enjoyable fare 4 stars
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  16-Jan-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 05-May-2009


  DVD: 17-Mar-2009

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