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Chasing Dream
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by Jay Seaver

"As big and entertaining as an MMA & music rom-com should be."
5 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: Johnnie To no longer cranks out movies at the same two-a-year clip that he maintained from the time he started directing features in the late 1980s until about 2012, but it doesn't feel right to say that he's slowed down - previous film "Three" was a nifty little thriller with a rocket-propelled finale, and "Office" was a star-studded 3D musical drama set in a stunning open set, both ambitious in their own ways. His latest has similar no-holding-back energy - it's likes someone decided "Rocky" and "A Star Is Born" needed to be mashed-up into a romantic comedy and To was the guy to make sure they fit absolutely everything in.

On the one hand, it's the story of Tiger (Jacky Heung Cho), an up-and-coming mixed-martial-artist tagged with a "gluttonous boxer" gimmick, but it starts with ring girl Cuckoo Du (Wang Keru) showing up late. Tiger doesn't mind - he recognizes her as the granddaughter of the owner of a noodle shop back in his hometown - but sponsor/manager Gao Qiang (Chen Bin) also recognizes her, as someone who owes his debt-collection business a lot of money. Tiger convinces Gao to let him deal with her, but soon he's getting yanked into her deal: She says her debt was run up by ex-boyfriend Qu Fengfeng (Ma Xiaohui), who also stole her songs and ditched her once he started to become a big pop idol. Now he's one of the hosts of talent-search show Perfect Diva, and Cuckoo fully intends to make it onto the show and rip him a new one even if she doesn't win.

There's usually a section in movies like this where the singer is refining her craft, done as a sort of montage, with time clearly passing over the course of five minutes or so. That's not the pace that To and his team of writers are looking to set, though, so instead this happens over the course of a day, as Cuckoo goes to her first audition, blows it spectacularly, gets some bad advice from Tiger about what went wrong and then cajoles him into driving him to the Perfect Diva audition happening in the next city, and again and again until it's got to be pushing midnight. It's brilliant in a lot of ways - it lets the audience actually see Cuckoo adapting, rather than just taking the progression for granted as an obligatory thing to be skipped over, it gets Cuckoo's timeline in sync with Tiger's, and it undercuts any sort of expectation one might have of earnest solemnity right away. Cuckoo starts out as hilariously terrible on stage, and Tiger is constantly wrong and ridiculous as he tries to encourage her, and yet, the cast and crew are able to sell that Cuckoo does, in fact, have the raw talent even if she lacks the instincts while Tiger quite clearly has a great big honest heart even if he has clearly already taken way too many blows to the head.

It's not entirely surprising that Cuckoo's quest becomes the thing that drives the movie after that, to the point where the film seems eager to jettison the fighting: For all that Tiger isn't that bright, he's not stupidly stubborn about continuing to fight after being told that he's probably two or three matches away from glaucoma, Parkinson's, and more; that hot pot restaurant he talked about opening after retirement starts to sound pretty good. Sure, there's a certain inevitability to how he'll eventually have a final climactic match - though Master Ma Qing (Shao Bing) looks down on MMA as a corruption of pure, beautiful boxing, Tiger respects him far too much to not come to his defense when he's in trouble - but for long stretches, Jacky Heung's main job is to make Tiger purely happy for the success Cuckoo is finding, and that joy carries the film for quite a while.

That characterization makes it easy to dismiss Jacky Heung's work as Tiger as one-note, and his simplicity is a big part of the character's appeal, but it's not as easy as it looks - not many people manage the combination of good intentions and the sort of chippy aggression you need to be this sort of fighter - but he gets to play against expectation a lot and make Tiger funny without being the butt of the jokes. Wang Keru is just as funny as Cuckoo (she gets to do physical comedy and dance well), and she gets to hold on to a great deal of anger and shame at being fooled without coming off as abrasive. They complement each other well enough that the story doesn't need to throw a bunch of conflict-creating obstacles in their way. There's fun group around them, too - Ma Xiaohui spends every couple of minutes he gets on screen as Fengfeng looking quietly panicked that Cuckoo will immediately destroy him somehow, and it is always hilarious, while Wu Yitong, a couple seats away as a fellow judge, always looks ready to help though too ethical to do more than give Cuckoo a platform. A running joke with Kelly Yu Wenwen as a contestant ready to sacrifice anything for rock is never not deadpan funny while still letting her be a worthy competitor.

And, on top of that, there's Johnnie To just generally being a terrific filmmaker that not enough people outside of Asia have heard of, and even those that have probably don't know that he's as good at romantic comedy as he is at action and crime. He has a good-as-expected crew working the fight scenes, but also has a great time having cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung move the camera around the warehouse Tiger calls home, having a blast with all the scaffolding where solid walls and floors should be so that they can look through them or divide the screen without it seeming unnatural. Things move fast enough that one is aware of the speed but with such confidence and clarity that it never feels too fast.

It will probably be another year or two before To's next feature, although we should see his long-gestating Hong Kong anthology "Septet" soon, and while him no longer being able to keep up that pace (or having to) is a shame for those who want more, at least he's not short-changing us in the meantime, but using the resources that come with a Chinese co-production to stretch his limits more toward the grandiose.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33660&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/19/20 18:37:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2020 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Johnnie To

Written by
  Ryker Chan
  Siu-hei Chan
  Tin Shu Mak
  Ka-Fai Wai

Cast
  Jacky Heung
  Keru Wang
  Wenwen Yu



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