Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel: Chinese Opera in the Time of Cholera

The Imperial Japanese Army’s notorious Unit 731 has been the subject of several highly controversial docudramas that were sharply criticized for their exploitative use of horrific archival footage. This is not one of them. Instead, two members of the biological warfare research center will find themselves on the business end of an unorthodox interrogation in Hu Gaun’s comedic-tragic action mash-up The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and BluRay from Well Go USA.

A particularly nasty strain of Cholera is raging through China, courtesy of Unit 731. However, their leading biochemist Col. Ogasawara Goro and his aide de camp have been waylaid by a highwayman, who has more or less commandeered an inn to serve as his temporary hideout. However, the chef and his mute wife are not thrilled to have them there, but their Chinese opera singer sort of sides with the Scoundrel (and against his employers), for patriotic reasons. With varying degrees of reluctance, they proceed to grill the officer in hopes of exploiting his valuable formula.

Frankly, you just have to get through the first twenty minutes of buffoonery before Guan tips his hand. It turns out the four bickering captors are much smarter, disciplined, and unified than they would have the Japanese believe. In fact, we are witnessing an elaborate ruse inspired by Chinese opera, designed to lull Ogasawara into accidentally revealing the formula. The set-up works like a charm, but time is not on their side, especially when the Japanese military finally comes knocking.

Really, you want to stick with this film, because it reinvents itself several times. In a way, it rather shows up the kind of rubber-faced slapstick of co-star Huang Bo’s Lost in Thailand. There are indeed a number of twisty plot reversals and some ripping good action spectacle in the third act. In fact, it wins over viewer affections in surprising (but spoilery) ways.

Huang and Zhang Hanyu are rather amazing dialing it up and then cranking it down as the Scoundrel and the Actor, respectively. Liu Ye cannot quite turn on a dime as quickly as his two comrades, but he shows off the strongest action chops as the Chef. Yet, it is Liang Jing who probably undertakes the greatest upstairs-downstairs transformation as the goonish wife. One should also keep their eyes on Taiwan-based Japanese actress-model Chie Tanaka, for dramatic reasons, because she nicely turns her own subtle surprises, as well.

Somehow, the misleadingly Greenaway-esque titled Chef manages to be both a traditional homage and an ironic riff on the King Hu-inspired inn period drama. Guan throws just about everything into the mix, except maybe space aliens and cynicism. Highly recommended (but seriously, don’t bail on it early), The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel is now available on DVD, BluRay, and digital platforms from Well Go USA.