Xu Zheng returns to wreak more comic havoc in Lost in Hong Kong which arrives shortly after its predecessor Lost in Thailand (2012) has conceded its position at the top of the all-time mainland China box office chart to the fantasy adventure Monster Hunt (2015). Serving as director-star for the second time having picked up behind-the-camera duties from Lost on Journey (2010) helmer Raymond Yip, the multi-tasking Xu ups the ante with this entry, paying humorous tribute to some of Hong Kong cinema’s most iconic action movies by putting his family man protagonist in a string of madcap situations around the bustling city state.
Before he unleashes the hijinks, though, Xu offers a bittersweet prologue, which finds his character Xu Lai studying art at university in the 1990s. Xu somehow starts dating beautiful fellow student Yang Yi (Du Juan) and largely fails to notice the attentions classmate of Cai Bo (Zhao Wei). Xu never manages to consummate his relationship with Yang, who is transferred to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but fortunately ends up with Cai Bo who proves to be a loving partner. Having lost contact with Yang and given up on his dreams of being an artist, Xu goes to work for his father-in-law who runs a lingerie business and settles into a comfortable lifestyle. Shot through a warmly sentimental filter, this extended opening could be taken as a light send-up of the coming-of-age dramas that have recently proved popular with mainland audiences seeking to relive their student days through multiplex entertainment.
In the present, Xu’s feelings for Yang, who has become a successful artist, are reignited when she invites him to the opening of her exhibition in Hong Kong. Planning to secretly reunite with her under the guise of a family vacation, Xu heads to Hong Kong with Cai Bo and his in-laws in toe, plus his brother-in-law Cai Lala (Bao Beier) who harbors ambitions of becoming a filmmaker and is constantly filming everything with his DV camera, no matter how mundane. The problems begin when Cai Lala captures evidence of a murder, causing Xu’s efforts to see his ex-girlfriend being complicated by increasingly run-ins with cops, criminals, and infuriated bystanders. Letting rip with an abundance of homages to Hong Kong cinema, the hapless double act crashes the set of a typically schlocky Wong Jing production, with Xu getting a helmet stuck to his head for a stretch of the action as he runs around the city looking like a bargain basement action hero. Eventually, his foolish pursuit of Yang puts both her and Cai Bo in danger and Xu must find a way to save the day and his marriage.
The ‘Lost’ series is an example of the freewheeling Asian attitude towards sequels whereby actors and concepts return but the characters and storylines of previous installments are often jettisoned. Without the need for narrative consistency, each entry can easily cater to popular taste, which in mainland China, seems to shift every few months. While this approach may baffle viewers who expect a direct continuation, it at least liberates the filmmaker’s from having to contrive a further excuse to have the same characters wind up in similarly ridiculous circumstances, as with The Hangover series (2009/2011/2013), to which ‘Thailand’ is frequently, if rather mistakenly, compared. ‘Hong Kong’ doesn’t ultimately veer too far away from the madcap antics or general arc of ‘Thailand’, but both entries are far removed from the comparatively leisurely ‘Journey’, which was sincere in its tribute to fundamental Chinese values through its tale of unlikely traveling companions Changsha in time for Lunar New Year.
If ‘Journey’ dealt with a transformative Chinese society at the peak of its economic rise and ‘Thailand’ lampooned its resultant tourist culture, then ‘Hong Kong’ sets out to poke fun at the always uneasy dynamic between mainland China and the former British colony. The film’s domestic release date even coincides with the Golden Week holiday, a national break during which time Hong Kong is the destination of choice for many mainland citizens, especially those who revel in high-end consumer spending. Xu also plays up the now necessary relationship between mainland and Hong creative industries, not to mention the nostalgia that both territories feel for the Hong Kong of the 1990s when its movies were at their most vital, although such wild content is hard to replicate in today’s market when co-productions must meet the censorship requirements of the People’s Republic. Xu drops in nods to Peter Chan’s classic romance Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996) and playfully references Wong Kar-wai via bursts of slow-shutter-speed photography, but it’s Hong Kong’s action legacy that largely fuels his restless visual style with frantic chase sequences scored to vintage Cantopop.
‘Hong Kong’ isn’t as well paced as ‘Thailand’ with the best sequence coming relatively early in the proceedings as Xu and Cai Lala crash through various nefarious enterprises as they breathlessly navigate interconnected buildings with the sight gags coming thick and fast in a manner that later set pieces – a Police Story (1985) bus stunt and rooftop climax – can’t quite match. Xu is now almost too comfortable in his beleaguered businessman role and there’s never sense that he’s going to leap into an affair with the statuesque Yang making the personal stakes relatively low, but leaving his everyman to carry all the drama means that the starry supporting cast gets shortchanged, particularly Zhao. The double act here is also not as balanced as in ‘Thailand’, mainly because Bao turns Cai Lala into a one-note annoyance with none of the naïve charm that Wang Baoqiang brought to his equivalent role.
As hit and miss as it is, Lost in Hong Kong delivers enough easy laughs to suggest that this formula will be put to use a couple of years from now in another destination popular with China’s tourist class, although Xu may want to shake up his screen persona next time around rather than risk playing the same clueless traveler one time too many, regardless of the name change.