“Subtlety, thy name is not Enter The Phoenix.” This 2004 Hong Kong comedy, whose Chinese title literally translates as “Big Brother Loves Beauty” is an over-the-top, try-hard wacky triad farce (an odd hate-it-or-love-it genre similar to Korean gangster comedies) bulging with stereotypes, star-cameos and silliness.
Actor-turned-singer-turned-director (with a little graphic design and modelling on the side) Stephen Fung’s first outing in the director’s seat follows the story of Georgie Hung (played by Daniel Wu) who, when his father tragically passes away, lets his best friend Sam (Cantopop sensation Eason Chan), a man much more enamoured with the triad lifestyle- for better or for worse- take up the mantle as gangster boss. With their identity switch kept secret, the two friends fall into a love triangle with the leading gangster of an opposing group’s daughter. After crazy hi-jinks ensue, they end up having to defend not only themselves, but Georgie’s father’s legacy from a revenge-seeking gang rival. Along for the ride are comedic actors Chapman To and Law Kar-ying, award-winning actress Karen Mok, hard-man veteran Michael Chan and cameos from Nicholas Tse, Yuen Biao and some guy named Jackie Chan…
To say Enter The Phoenix‘s humour is broad would be an understatement. Whilst most Hong Kong cinema’s comedic chops can often be slightly tasteless, they are often good-natured at heart and innocent enough to tickle the funny bone. What we have on offer for 100 or so minutes during this film verges on outlandish, tasteless and crass, with gags more often than not bordering on infantile and, at most times, completely random. Daniel Wu’s character, Georgie, being gay and Eason Chan’s role Sam, pretending to be gay generates the more groan-inducing moments of the film; these jokes possessing the subtlety of a tank cannon. Some very un-PC and childish jokes are made and whether or not most of it will be tolerable will be down to the viewer. The fact is, what seems to be downright offending to Western viewers will most often or not just be silly fun to a Cantonese-speaking audience and it is this crossover and how well a foreign audience can keep this is mind which will determine ones enjoyment of the film- but even for fans with a high tolerance of Canto-comedy, a lot of what is on show here is shallow and annoyingly stupid.
Whilst characters and plot are achingly thin, we do get some spurts of action, but sadly, even this element of the film does not rise above the standard commercial fare. With the lack of actual martial artists and/or a veteran, tried-and-tested action choreography, the film is lacking. To be fair, Enter The Phoenix is not the only Hong Kong film of the last decade to favour weak, quick-cut style over substance action as sadly, that isn’t what sells anymore and not particularly what the audience has came to see. It is however, a sad feeling that once, in the heyday of the 80’s and 90’s Hong Kong film, even a romantic comedy or commercial fare like this could contain a wam-bam action scene just for the hell of it. In the last ten years, commercial filmmaking in Hong Kong is safer and there is less willing to take risks; Enter The Phoenix does not rise above these notions.
On the plus side, the cast is likeable when they’re not annoying and, for the most part, the film is a very easy, albeit slightly overlong watch. But to put it blunty, Enter The Phoenix is semi-irritating popcorn fluff with only a handful of smiles and smirks along the way to keep it running. Even for fans of Hong Kong comedy, the film may be one broad-stroke too many. It sadly, has too much of everything and not a lot of anything.
Tom Kent-Williams is a writer, reviewer and co-host at the Podcast On Fire Network currently residing in Birmingham, England. He has been in love with Asian cinema since seeing Akira for the first time and has a slight man-crush on Chow Yun-fat. Hong Kong cinema floats his boat big time, along with synthpop, classic gaming and cups of tea in large mugs.