Heavenly Kings

This rather amusing and witty mockumentary of the current Cantonese music scene takes on an even more tongue in cheek Kafkaesque absurdity when the manner in which it was made is taken into account. A few years back actor Andrew Lin suggested to fellow actor and friend Daniel Wu that they should do a project around the recent phenomenon of the “Boy Bands” that have hit the Pan-Asian charts like a musical variant of the avian flu. These Boy Bands and their female counterparts (can any of us forget the Cookies) are considered by most in the industry to be sadly lacking in any real musical talent and are a totally prefabricated package of looks and differing personalities that the record companies assemble like an evil jigsaw puzzle. At the very beginning of the film it is stated that the sales numbers for Cantonese music are now half of what they were in 1995 and though the film never directly says so it leaves little doubt that the reason for much of this decline is the dearth of new talent and an over reliance on style and looks.

This led Wu to go one step further than what Lin was considering – why not, he thought, form a boy’s band themselves and then film the whole process for posterity with a definite eye focused on the ridiculousness of it all. Wu brought two other friends on board, Terrance Yin and Conroy Chan, which along with the fact that all of them were not only a bit long in the tooth for a “boy’s band” but also all foreign born with weak Cantonese skills all the more absurd. That none of them other than Yin could actually sing was considered to be of little consequence in the current music scene. So the four of them announce with all seriousness to the press that they are forming a band called “Alive”, then get a manager and try to make a record – to at times very amusing results.

Within this framework of reality, Wu (as the director of this) interweaves much faux drama of personality clashes and being packaged for success and it is not always easy to discern what is real and what is fiction. As a mockumentary, the film doesn’t really break any new ground and is perhaps too gentle but the fact that it stars a few well known personalities playing themselves gives it a delicious insider feel. Of the four only Wu could be considered a “star” (and the other three refer to him constantly as the handsome one) while the other three actors have primarily been utilized in secondary roles or in the case of Conroy he has been lucky enough to marry Josie Ho who is lucky enough to be the daughter of a wealthy tycoon. Also interspersed within the film are comments from luminaries such as Jackie Cheung, Karen Mok, Miriam Yeung, Paul Wong and Nicholas Tse about the music business. Whether they were aware that they were in on a gigantic gag is not clear as their comments are serious and give the proceedings an air of unexpected respectability.

The group goes into the studio to cut a song and after many many takes (their producer winces in pain at their singing ability), they have a song and are ready to make the rounds of the record companies. But none of the companies are particularly interested or they want to take a huge cut of the profits and after a few months it looks like the band is going nowhere. Wu then comes up with a marketing strategy that is brilliant and totally unethical – but as he says so are all the marketing strategies employed by the record companies. He surreptitiously uploads their song to the Internet and then calls a journalist to complain that someone in one of the record companies must have stolen the song and done this. This phone call that is recorded actually happened and later a press conference was held that again raged about their song being stolen and their value as a band being damaged. Because of this blatant and unapologetic manipulation and mockery of the press, the film was ignored by many papers when it was released!

The deception works though and soon this publicity causes the band to be in demand for concerts for Channel V and promotions for ads (Wu says they used the money to help finance the film) and the fact that they have no real talent truly doesn’t matter. Their manager tells them they need to sharpen up their image by learning how to dance and to borrow some style and so experts are brought in to teach them both. Adding even more to the fog between reality and fiction is that the dance choreographer is actor Tony Ho and the stylist is actor David Lee – but both are identified with their real names. These segments are the comical highlights of the film – Ho gets incredibly frustrated with their inability to learn some simple dance steps and Lee playing gayness to the nth degree has the boys try on various outfits that bring bad taste to a new plateau.

As the band becomes a bit successful frictions between the members threaten to tear the group apart. All four members are given distinct personalities and again one wonders how much of this is real and how much is made up. In an interview Conroy says somewhere between 10-15% is really who they are – somehow I suspect more. – perhaps just exaggerated for drama and humor. Wu is the controlling one who has a hissy fit when Yin forgets the lyrics on stage, Lin keeps quiet and is looking at this as an opportunity to further his film career, Yin is the party boy who is always late due to carousing and willing groupies and Conroy just seems to be a lazy bastard who knows he has it made because of his marriage! In the end though they are all very likable and the fact that they allow themselves to be portrayed as less than perfect makes them even more so. One senses that these would be fun guys to hang out with and that they have the beginnings of their own Hong Kong Rat Pack (alluded to in the film) in the making.

Most surprising to me about the film is that Wu took on the reins of director and did a fine job mixing all the elements of the film from concert footage to anime to interviews to backstage drama. It is also a clever script that he came up with and it will be interesting to see if he continues to shed his “star” image as he does here and occasionally experiment in films such as this. One can only hope so because this is one of the better things he has been in by far and Hong Kong needs all the new inspiration it can get.

My rating for the film: 7.5