Panda Express is only excusable if you’re at a suburban mall and Sbarro’s run out of sausage slices. Under no circumstances should it be consumed otherwise, in any form, including that of the cinematic variety. This moribund Chinese New Year film barely registers a pulse let alone anything suggesting excitement and quite frankly is an insult to holiday films, a feckless Chinese subgenre that already sets the bar pretty low.
The problem does not lie in the story so much as in the telling of it. The plot is digestible and follows the prescribed formula of similar road comedies, but Panda Express is majestic in its dullness. A low-on-his-luck darts seller in the Song Dynasty, Wang Laoji (Liu Hua), has always dreamed of being an armed escort. He gets his chance when an official mistakes him for one and entrusts him with the task of safely delivering a panda. He is to complete the journey within ten days, when there will be a party for the general (Ren Quan). Laoji jumps at the opportunity and sets off on his merry way.
He is soon waylaid by a lady highway robber (A Duo) who wants more than his money; she wants him in her bed. But a Mongolian bandit (Shi Ning), eager to get his hands on some panda meat because he thinks it will make him invincible, interrupts their courtship. A pair of assassins (Li Yu and Li Xiaochuan) also wants to get ahold of our furry friend and makes more trouble for Liaoji, as does Ahao (Deng Jiajia), a sergeant overzealous in her pursuit of animal smugglers. She initially suspects he is part of a smuggling ring until her heart leads her to another conclusion.
The film chugs along at a steady if not exactly express pace for about forty-five minutes, allows for a colorless interlude, and then picks up again when Liaoji finally reaches the town and the feted general reveals himself to be a warmonger. There’s a bit with dancing pandas – that is, middle-aged men donning fuzzy black and white onesies and attempting low-impact jazzercise moves. It’s a scene one might actually spy in China on your average Saturday afternoon walk in the park.
As for the cuddly star of the movie, it is of course not an actual panda but someone in a twenty thousand yuan costume custom-made in Hong Kong. The outfit is a good step above college mascot quality and occasionally squeaks like an oversized carnival prize, but it’s a bit lean and lacks the fluff factor to win the audience over. (I want real pandas, dammit!) In fact, most of the movie adopts the exaggerated comedy styling often found in Hong Kong’s Chinese New Year films, where kitsch and frivolity count. But unlike the better representatives of this genre, Panda Express doesn’t register a laugh a minute, however cheap and unearned, nor does it amp up audience affection. Liaoji’s growing attachment to his cargo will elicit a few “awws,” but it’s all passing sweet.
The superior theme song “Dreaming” (朝思暮想) by the superior Jane Zhang:
Prod: Chris Liu 劉晶; Li Xiang 李湘
Dir: Wang Yuelun 王岳倫
Writer: Gao Fei 高飛
Cast: Liu Hua 劉樺; A Duo 阿朵; Shi Ning 施寧; Deng Jiajia 鄧家佳; Li Yu 李彧; Li Xiaochuan 李小川; Ren Quan 任泉; Pace Wu 吳佩慈; Li Changyuan 李昌元; He Jiong 何炅
Time: 90 min
Lang: Mandarin, some Mongolian, various dialects
Country: Mainland China