In the opening minutes of this movie, Wang Leehom’s alter ego, Du Minghan, a wunderkind pop star, tells a reporter that he calls his musical style “‘chinked-out,’ combining Beijing opera with hip hop.” I can think of many names for this genre, but “chinked-out” is definitely not one of them. (Wang also used this term, to much controversy, during the promotion of his actual record.) It is a pretty egregious misstep in a movie filled with lazy writing and aimless directing, but one still has to admire the director-writer-actor-singer-composer’s effort to infuse a run-of-the-mill romcom with some traditional arts and history.
DMH, as the main character is styled, makes the leap from pop to classical Chinese music by way of a plot device picked from a hat. One night, a girl on a bike runs into his car. Xiaoqing (Liu Yifei) is no plain Jane, however, even if she looks it, but instead a top guzheng player at the a music conservatory in Shanghai and the dean’s daughter. Whenever he hears her play, DMH finds himself in a hallucinogenic daze, awash with glittery purple butterflies. Music is a drug, folks! He just can’t get enough of it and convinces himself that he must enroll in the school as well.
But being a famous pop star, he first has to lower his profile. DMH and his guitarist buddy Wei Zhibo (Chen Han-Tien), or WZB, disguise themselves as simple villagers from the boondocks, a place called Nail Town. This provides an hour and a half’s worth of jokes and hijinks, all predictable and none particularly funny. DMH needs to avoid being found out, both by his rabid fans and his doting manager (Joan Chen), so that he can get closer to Xiaoqing. It is unclear what kind of sweet music he wants to make with her once they do partner up, but here, the pursuit is the thing.
This is Wang’s first foray into filmmaking and it shows. Not only does he play it safe and stick with the usual gimmicks, visually, the film is also flat and lifeless. Wang himself is not a fantastic actor, at least not when it comes to comedy. He is helped by Chen Han-Tien, whom I like for the cheeky but charming personality he brings to many of his characters. Chen hams it up but avoids being screechy, and of the two friends, I’d rather trail WZB for a day.
What Wang tries to get but still misses is that the strength of this movie is the music. Its best moments come when one filters out the bland love story. For a movie filled with musical passion, Xiaoqing is a pretty inert wallflower. Liu does delicate well but that makes a boring romantic lead. The real love story is between music and culture. This is where Wang’s intensity shines through. He makes no effort to mask his thesis, that music is democratic, boundless; it doesn’t distinguish between history, class, or genre, and actually, it can be pretty damn good when everything fuses together. Arguing for the establishment is Mufan (Qiao Zhenyu), a young and brilliant composer so disgusted with popular music that he pontificates at every opportunity, whether on the quad or in the cafeteria.
The questions of what music and which artists are worthy of popular appreciation, of how music can be used to explore and connect with cultural roots and history, of the very nature of music to express and feel – all are relevant in today’s Chinese music market. No doubt Wang, who is a Berklee College of Music graduate and proficient in more instruments than one has fingers, was and continues to try to help the adoring masses deepen their musical knowledge and appreciation. With that in mind, he should have included more scenes like the one where DMH and WZB jam out in the dean’s office with just an erhu, a ruan, and lots of attitude.
A sampling of Wang Leehom’s musical styles – “Beside the Plum Blossoms” from Heroes of the Earth album.
Prod: Mathew Tang 鄧漢強; Michelle Yeh 葉育萍
Dir: Wang Leehom 王力宏
Writer: Wang Leehom 王力宏; Du Xinyi 杜欣怡; Chen Hongjie 陳虹潔
Cast: Wang Leehom 王力宏; Crystal Liu Yifei 劉亦菲; Chen Han-Tien 陳漢典; Joan Chen 陳沖; Qiao Zhenyu 喬振宇; Zeng Yike 曾軼可; Xie Yuan 謝園; Xie Na 謝娜; Khalil Fong 方大同; Lang Tsu-Yun 郎祖筠
Time: 98 min
Country: Mainland China