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Eighth Happiness
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by Jay Seaver

"Just about as totally 1980s Hong Kong as a farce can get."
3 stars

"Eighth Happiness" starts with a gag that may just be too tacky to make the cut in an American comedy today, if anyone were still making broad 90-minute farces, but which is executed beautifully and works because there are pros involved who know how to handle its insanity. Screwball requires both meticulous timing and commitment to total anarchy, and this movie has a fair bit of both.

It follows the three brothers of the family Fang. Chien-Sheng (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau) wound up raising his younger siblings, and now hosts a morning cooking show on Hong Kong TV aimed at housewives. Chien-Lang (Chow Yun-Fat) is a would-be actor who has probably only kept girlfriend "Do-Do" Hung (Carol "Do-Do" Cheng Yu-Ling) so long because the flight attendant is often out of town and won't see his attempt to bed a woman from each of Hong Kong's districts. Chien-Hui (Raymond Wong Pak-Ming) is a shy artist looking to become a cartoonist. Over the course of a night, a number of misdialed and mis-connected telephone calls will connect them with potential dream girls: Chien-Hui believes he overhears a suicide attempt but winds up bursting in on Ying-Ying (Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying) instead; Chien-Lang gets a lead on shopgirl "Beautiful" (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung), as horny and reckless as he is; and Chien-Sheng starts a feud with Wu Fen-Fang (Petrina Fung Bo-Bo), not that he knows her name when he meets the Chinese Opera singer at the pastry shop the next morning before she is the guest on his show.

Those who mostly know Chow Yun-Fat from his work with John Woo and other bullet-filled action spectacles will likely drop their jaws at his character here, who despite the womanizing never seems less than flamboyantly gay even before you get to the posters of shirtless men in his bedroom, although his explanation is that at some point in his youth his brothers dressed him in girls' clothing and "now I'm campy!" It's a downright weird but never less than energetic performance, and the movie is at its most manic when he and Cherie Chung are competing to see who can top what the other is up to. It's a movie so full of broad, strange performances that Jacky Cheung's Chien-Sheng seems just as off in his grounded responsibility, while co-writer Raymond Wong and Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying almost fall into the background as a couple of nice kids you'd like to see wind up together even if they do get some of the movie's funniest scenes.

That includes the opener, which starts with Ying-Ying getting (sort of) flashed by a guy short enough that she initially thinks he's a kid and ends with her mother's martial-arts class running at Chien-Hui with swords. Director Johnnie To would spend much of the 1990s building a body of crime and action work that ranks among the greats, and he applies the same skills to the various slapstick set pieces here. They are over-the-top and the result of ridiculous misunderstandings, but To is great at keeping things hidden so that the audience isn't necessarily looking down on those jumping to the wrong conclusions, and even when some in the cast may not have perfect comic timing, he does. This isn't a fancy movie at all - it kind of looks cheap at times - but it's surprisingly rare that a comic beat gets missed.

(It doesn't hurt that the Hong Kong studio system meant that when you want to bash some cars together or have people stumbling to evade a madwoman with a sword for a joke, you can call the folks who built the action for the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam in for a couple days' work).

To and a mostly game cast are still having to work overtime to get the most out of a messy script that feels like the result of people pitching gags and then having a hard time tying it together into an actual story. It doesn't help that, thirty years later, the telephone-related stuff seems like it comes from an even earlier century and some of the characterizations are questionable, but there's a number of moments where one might be more invested in the brothers getting their comeuppance rather than working their way out of a situation and others where a gag just doesn't work and the bits that build on it can't either. Farce needn't be deep, but this one gets very random at times.

The bits that don't work aren't nearly as frequent or intense as those that do, thankfully, and though "Eighth Happiness" is a ridiculous, dated trifle, it's the sort that makes one think that the world could use more trifles. 90 minutes of making an audience laugh with no strings attached can be a lot of fun.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34192&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/08/21 16:11:52
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USA
  06-May-1988

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