The Heavenly Kings (四大天王)

The Fantastic Four

Daniel Wu and company ham it up and form a boy band, replete with coordinating pastels and dopey dance moves. But their foray into the world of Cantopop is more than some new kids on the block trying to make it big. Rather, the erstwhile singing sensation known as Alive set out to expose the industry’s machinations, whether in music or the marketing of, with the resulting quasi-mockumentary as their vehicle. The success is debatable but the film is an amusing, over-the-top diversion.

The dubious idea first comes to Andrew Lin as a way of boosting his sagging career, and he lures a few friends who might help the cause. Daniel Wu (beloved action hero, romantic lead, and L’Oreal facial cream spokesperson) is at the top of the list followed by Terence Yin (the snarky bad guy in bad movies) and Conroy Chan (whose biggest acting credit to date is marriage to actress Josie Ho). Incidentally, none save Yin would even qualify for a local singing contest much less a lush recording contract – and they don’t get one, at least one that requires less than a 10 year commitment. But that’s merely a pebble on Alive’s path to super stardom. They drum up a scheme, one that includes illegal downloading, to generate publicity for their first single.

The plan pans out and the media bites, but the artificial bounce to their singing career doesn’t last long. The band needs cash for music videos, concerts, and blinking fan signs, so it’s off to a noxious wedding photo promotion shoot. Then their manager, concerned about the lack of a cohesive image, invites a Liberace-channeling fashion designer to propose a few outfits, all of which get a big fail. It’s their mini-tour though that the strain of being pop princes really start to emerge. Chan and Yin prove themselves to be regular party animals, something that doesn’t sit well with resident anal retentive Wu or the staid Lin. As the inevitable personality clash threatens the group, the audience wonders, will Alive make up or break up? Will the boys remain friends? Will Andrew Lin actually get a job after this?

The bigger question, really, is whether any of this matters. Is this the expose that will save Hong Kong entertainment from synergetic black hole of EEG and Gold Label, the city’s two main pop factories? Director Wu enlists the aid of various industry insiders, including producer Davy Chan, songwriter Paul Wong, singers Miriam Yeung and Karen Mok, real Heavenly King Jacky Cheung, and repeat offender Nic Tse, to help us navigate the treacherous and unseen netherworld of Hong Kong musicdom. They paint quite an unflattering and disheartening picture for anyone who actually cares about artistic integrity – and that’s where this caper starts to unravel. Those interested in quality output already understand the overly manufactured nature of the industry, so the movie hardly breaks new ground. And those who would be surprised by these revelations are probably the ones who thought Alive’s first song Adam’s Choice was a bit of musical genius.

Yes, the film provides some healthy, well-earned laughs; these guys know how to have a good time and the animated sequences are off the wall. But that said, it appears to suffer from a case of multiple personality disorder. It wants to bill itself as a devastating indictment on Hong Kong entertainment but remains very much a product of the same system it sets out to critique. The whole cast of characters just proves how inbred the industry is. Is Nic Tse, platinum member of EEG, the best guy to ruminate on artistic integrity? EEG, the same company that introduced us to Twins, Boy’z, and Edison Chen – music and movies! Daniel Wu meanwhile has had his share of those generic, throw away pop culture collaborations that he attacks here. I sense that the men of Alive are trying hard to be subversive, but what they reveal instead is an industry leaves little room for maneuvering. In the short run, they pull a fast one on the city, but it grows increasingly difficult to differentiate reality from the pretense of it, as they prove when their song nets a Best Song nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

Which leads me to think, maybe Alive really doesn’t care and Andrew Lin really does just need a job. That would explain the fair amount of toilet humor, literally, and general frat boy stunts. They seem to derive more pleasure out of jerking everyone around than anything, and one gets that sense as the film nears its end when Lin unleashes some moments of brilliant deadpan. Maybe that’s the best, least cynical way of looking at this. At one point, Miriam Yeung suggests that the industry is one big game. You’re going to get played, so the only way to succeed is to accept the rules and play along. Although Alive doesn’t play by all the rules, they certainly don’t change any, and the game goes on.

(Alive + HK indie bands performing @ 26th Hong Kong Film Awards)