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June 24, 2014

The Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel

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Chúzi Xìzi Pǐzi
Guan Hu - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Unlike the films that followed Pulp Fiction with stories about idiosyncratic gangsters, Guan Hu seems to have taken Tarantino's Kill Bill films as inspiration, both visually and in story structure. Without any specific motivation, Guan's film veers from mock silent movie with intertitles to spaghetti western to animation, and that's just within the first five minutes. There is also the unmistakable influence of Sergio Leone, with both the title, and the basic premise of three people who may be working together, at least some of the time, but mostly are out for themselves. One could well evoke the cliche of what goes around, comes around, or something like that, with this film as a further example of the globalization of cinema.

The three title characters, plus the mute wife of the chef, are a very motley crew who have kidnapped two Japanese officers in Beijing of 1942. As such, the quartet tries to intimidate their captives and each other with manic displays of eccentricity. Taking place during a cholera epidemic, the captives may possibly also have a very valuable cure on their hands. While the cholera is decimating the civilian population of Beijing, it also is a threat to the Japanese army. The chef and his wife appear to be aiding the two officers. Simultaneously, the chef is at odds with the actor, a Chinese opera performer who is dressed for the stage, and the cowboy garbed scoundrel.

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Like Tarantino's films this one is also comprised of multiple flashbacks, looking at set pieces and more intimate scenes from different perspectives. The film takes place over several consecutive days, as part of an elaborate scheme of Chinese resistance to the Japanese army during one of the most dire periods during the war.

The clincher is at the end of the film when photos and titles provide the historical basis for the film. There are a series of old photographs of the characters, as well as an epilogue about the post war life of the main characters. As such, with daring of the real life events, I have to wonder if turning the story into a mostly manic comedy was such a good idea. There is an overflow of comic exaggeration for a story that would probably have more than enough drama and tension while sticking to the facts.

Taken on its own terms, The Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel can be enjoyed for both the shameless mugging of the four stars, and for the elaborate visual setups. Most of the film takes place inside the chef's restaurant, a multi-storied building with secret doors and passageways. In addition to the previously mentioned uses of visual and narrative style, Guan also gooses up the red and blue, uses multiple screens several times, and has one very deliberate anachronistic dance performance. Is there a Mandarin word for tweaking?

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 24, 2014 07:10 AM