Wu Yen

Reviewed by YTSL

Expect the unexpected.  That is the title of one of Milkyway Image’s films, and seemingly the production company’s credo.  Right from its debut offering -- whose main characters were a female assassin with an uncommonly cold body temperature and a male hot noodle seller (“Beyond Hypothermia”) -- all the way through its run of dark Handover era works up but especially since the calendar years started to have a 2 rather than 1 at the front of them.  Its four year 2000 entries -- “Spacked Out”, “Needing You...”, “Help!!!”, “Comeuppance” -- were as varied a group as they were different from the company’s earlier efforts.  2001 may have sprung the biggest surprise of all though; what with the producer-director pair of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai having come up with -- almost the last thing one would have associate with names behind such as the terribly bleak “Intruder” and “The Longest Nite” -- a bona fide Chinese New Year period comedy mega hit (For the record, Milkyway Image’s 17th production netted HK$27,241,316.00 at the Hong Kong box office)!

Filled to the brim as it is with cross-dressing characters, over-the-top -- not just larger-than-life -- personalities, rather warped love triangles, female as well as male fighters, dollops of low brow but also its share of clever humor along with contemporary riffs and often irreverent modern updates of historical material, WU YEN seems to be the latest representative of the often bemusing as well as amusing comic “tradition” and genre of Hong Kong films whose other notable exemplars include “The Eagle Shooting Heroes”, “Holy Weapon” and “All’s Well, Ends Well Too”.  At the same time, the rapid fire verbal delivery of its stars also recall Stephen Chow (There is one particular moment in the film -- when Anita Mui utters the phrase “give me another chance, (older) sis” -- that definitely made me think that I was beholding the female equivalent of the “mo lei tau” king in action!); and can leave the viewer feeling somewhat nonplussed and exhausted but also actually exhilarated post viewing this two hour long plus fast paced movie.

Truly, IMHO, WU YEN is one extremely creative as well as fun offering.  Notable proof of this comes right at the start of the fantastical film:  In the forms of the cute shadow puppet representations of a wizard, a fox-shaped fairy enchantress, the reigning emperor, his retinue, a woman warrior, the army she leads into battle and their opponents -- yes, you really did read what you just did, it really is not as lame as one might imagine this to be, and my bet is that this is the first time such have ever been featured in a Hong Kong movie -- whose every appearance, including its introductory one, is accompanied by a melodic off-screen female chorus (led by Sammi Cheng).  Then there’s the unusual yet inspired choice of Anita Mui to play both the shallow MALE Emperor Qi -- who gets heard being described as a “lousy archer”, “poor horseman”, “cold hearted moron” and, most frequently (by the woman who loves him, no less), as an “imbecile” -- and his equally male Ancestor Huan.
“Hot female star of the moment” Sammi Cheng plays WU YEN’s title character:  The bandit leader of Yaksah Mountain who happens to be Emperor Qi’s pre-destined wife and the prophesized “ugly girl” who will “rise to the occasion and save the country” whenever her imperial beloved’s stupid actions causes it to come under attack from other Warring States (the film takes place in that so-named period of China’s history) and under threat as a result of an internal rebellion led by a patriotic “ugly man” (played by Raymond Wong).  Cecilia Cheung is the third talented actress called upon to charm this work’s audience as well as make us laugh.  The Fairy Enchantress she essays is a “crazed romantic” who takes the form of a young man (when it tries to woo Wu Yen) as well as TWO youthful females (when the non-human villain of this piece sets its sights on seducing the Emperor).  Without it around, the path to a happy marital union of the two individuals who inadvertently freed it from its rock prison to once more trouble mortals (and other folk) would have been far smoother and straightforward, and way less interesting.
In light of the complexity of the characters portrayed by its three female leads, it effectively came as a relief that those with supporting roles to play in WU YEN had ones that were single note (yet often not much less mirth-provoking).  Lam Suet shines as the effeminate Prime Minister but the actors who portrayed the fart-prone bodyguard, the perennially judgement passing historian and the usually supportive imperial advisor also contributed to upping the silly -- but, amazingly, never stupid -- film’s humor quotient.  The six rulers of rival states --one of whom comes in the form of Hui Siu Hung -- are fun to watch as well, notably in the movie’s second mahjong playing scene.  The elderly ancestral ghosts -- essayed by Wong Tin Lam and Bonnie Wong -- help enliven proceedings too.  Ditto re Wu Yen’s colorful band of followers.
Perhaps above everyone and everything else though, much credit is due to WU YEN’s scriptwriters.  The dialogue written by Yau Nai-Hoi, Ben Wong and co-director-producer Wai Ka Fai is full of wonderful lines that flow almost non-stop and amazingly well from one to another.  The plot twists are often very imaginative.  Many of the presented scenarios are enjoyable to behold.  I frankly don’t know of higher praise for such elements of a Hong Kong movie than to say that I actually derived at least as much entertainment from reading this thoroughly adorable offering’s virtually typo free subtitles as I did from watching what else of the picture unfold on the rest of my TV’s screen (As a final aside:  It may be weird but nevertheless is true that a particular rib-tickling moment for me came courtesy of seeing a pompous personage getting rather uniquely labeled a “croissant-head”!).

My rating for this film:  8.5

DVD Information:

Distributed by China Star

This is a much better DVD than those I have come across previously distributed by China Star, clearly they seem to be trying to upgrade their quality. The whole package has a much better look than your typical HK DVD and the transfer is excellent. Three complaints though - the Making of option has no English subs, there is no time component on the DVD and the Star Files are very brief.


Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks.

12 Chapters

The subtitles are Chinese or English or none.

There is a trailer for this film - but no others.

There is a Making of Section - but it is not subtitled in English and consists primarily of the three lead actresses talking about their experiences on the set.

Star files on Anita Mui, Sammy Cheng, Cecilia Cheung, Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai.