The recent mainland China box office success of comedies that are as low-brow as they are low-budget has proved that local audiences love cheap laughs just as much as the spectacle of expensive historical epics. From 2008 to 2010, many low-budget comedies achieved commercial success in China, such as Almost Perfect (2008), One Night in Supermarket (2009), Mars Baby (2009), Panda Express (2009), Stubborn Robot (2009), and Welcome to Sha-ma Town (2010). This production cycle was prompted by the surprising box office performance of Ning Hao’s comedy Crazy Stone in 2006; the film was completed for a modest 3 million RMB (approx. US$500,00), took 6 million RMB (approx. US$1M) in its first week of release and eventually grossed 23 million RMB (approx. US$4M), thereby serving as a template for how to reach a large audience with a low-cost product. Crazy Stone was produced by Focus: First Cuts, a scheme established by the Hong Kong star Andy Lau to enable young, relatively inexperienced filmmakers gain a footing in the industry by making inexpensive films for the mass audience. However, what started as a minor investment in the mainland market by an enterprising movie star would become a fully-fledged sector of production with Chinese studios seeing no need to innovate when it is much easier to imitate. As such, Crazy Stone established the formula for many of the low-budget comedies that would follow: an ensemble cast, a location outside a commercial or political centre, chaotic plotting, and humour that satirizes various social groups through dialectical or physical clashes.
The events of Crazy Stone take place in Chongqing, a recently urbanised South-West city that is considered to be the economic centre of the upstream Yangtze area, although a thriving black market culture remains. The narrative revolves around the discovery of a priceless jade stone at a dilapidated factory that is soon to be demolished by a greedy property developer. Realising that the stone could save the business, the factory director (Zhonghua Chen) puts it on show at a local temple while he finds a suitable buyer. The head of factory security, San Bao (Gang Liu) is made responsible for guarding the stone; although he is an ex-detective, Bao is struggling with prostate trouble and is ill-equipped to deal with the multiple parties who want to get their hands on the jade. These adversaries include the son of the factory director who wants the stone in order to pursue his dream girl, a group of highly trained professional thieves who have been hired by the scheming property developer, and an incompetent group of small-time crooks more used to pulling confidence scams on the metro system. Chaos ensues as these parties try to outmanoeuvre one another in order to gain possession of the jade stone, resulting in a series of set-pieces which both borrow from, and poke fun at, such Hollywood blockbusters as Mission: Impossible (1996) and Ocean’s 11 (2001). Hao replaces the high-tech sophistication of such capers with the sheer desperation of characters trying to get ahead in an advancing society.
As in the earlier Feng Xiaogang comedies The Dream Factory (1997) and Sorry Baby (1999), much of humour in Crazy Stone comes from the collision of individuals from different social backgrounds: artists, criminals, factory workers, police officers, professional thieves, property tycoons and romantic partners. However, narrative structure and visual style are more influenced by Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) as story-strands intersect through multiple-space montage accompanied by rock music; characters, locations and travel between spaces are conveyed through quick cutting, split-screen and establishing shots with position many characters as caricatures of contemporary Chinese society. Crazy Stone does not try to disguise its low-budget background as it is shot on digital video and images often blur when the camera whip-pans to keep up with the hectic action, with such imperfections drawing attention to the sub-par production quality. Some jokes suggest a cruel streak that has sadly fuelled such subsequent Chinese comedies, but Crazy Stone is also infused with satirical spirit and takes shots at the money-chasing Western value system that has been adopted in the country since the economic boom. The owner of a BMW states that the initials of his vehicle stand for ‘Don’t touch me’ (one of many plays on language) when bumped by a lowly van driver, while characters compare ‘designer’ clothing and cans of coca cola are ubiquitous throughout. Crazy Stone became an industrial trend-setter for mass-market disposability, but would be more enjoyable in retrospect if it had remained an occasionally amusing one-off.