Thursday, August 11, 2016

Review - The Diary of a Big Man

August 11, 2016

Diary of a Big Man, The – Hong Kong, 1988

Chow Yun-Fat is a very talented actor. Blessed with dashing good looks and an appearance that can fluctuate between tender and tough at the drop of a dime, he has dazzled audience for four decades, an impressive feat by any standards. He excels in dramas and period pieces, and his films with John Woo were many young people’s introduction to Hong Kong cinema. I have seen a number of his films and enjoyed many of them. However, nothing I had seen before of his prepared me for Chor Yuen’s The Diary of a Big Man. If that sounds like praise, it is not.

In The Diary of a Big Man, Chow plays Chow Chen Fat, a young stock analyst whose life is utterly changed one rainy night. It is on that night that he meets two young women. The first is Joey (Joey Wang). She meets Chow while her umbrella is giving her fits, and he clumsily tries to assist her. In this movie, being clumsy is rather endearing, and in no time at all, she’s giving him her card so that he can return her umbrella after he fixes it. (Really. That’s what the subtitles said.) A few minutes later, he meets Sally (Sally Yeh). Sally is getting out of a cab, and wouldn’t you know it - she needs an umbrella! Just what’s a guy like Chow to do in this situation, but give her the umbrella? It’s practically love at first sight.

Chow decides to date both of them, and through a series of errors eventually ends up married to them. Thus, begins one of the greatest and funniest of ruses ever put to celluloid. If only. Rather, thus begins is an ill-fated attempt at screwball comedy featuring actors whose director has confused screaming and exaggerating with acting, and who believes that being eclectic is the same as being entertaining. All of this is brought to us courtesy of a screenwriter who seems to think that taking time to establish characters and built relationships is overrated.

Just how much did I dislike this films? Oh, let me count the ways. This is a film which offers a semblance of sweetness in its opening moments only to abandon it seconds later in favor of showing nastiness in the guise of screwball comedy. This is a film that thinks that actors will be funny if they speak loudly and quickly, yet doesn’t put any thought into what the actors are actually saying. There are scenes featuring cockroaches and screaming women, police sergeants who sexually harass their subordinates, and a man making up threats against his life in order to deceive his wives. All of these scenes are intended to be humorous. Then there’s the almost obligatory scene from an eighties comedy - you know, the one in which the lead character pretends to be gay - and the almost obligatory overreaction by the person who sees him do so. Here, the witness seems to be trying to avoid throwing up, and as he departs, he yells at two unsuspecting individuals, “Don’t get AIDS!” Ah, the eighties.

Like a screwball film, The Diary of a Big Man is a film that doesn’t take a moment to breath. It is filmed like a Road Runner cartoon, all frenzied movement with no direction or purpose. Its female character are one-dimensional for most of the film, and then suddenly they’re engaging in actions that are so far removed from what they have done before that it’s unsettling. In one scene, the film seems to be attempting black comedy when Chow’s two lovely wives, previously thoughtful, caring, and devoted, are suddenly pretending to be drugged and arranging for their husband to be roughed up by thugs. The change is simply too sudden to be shocking and the execution too bland to be entertaining. I watched it in exasperation rather than exhilaration.

Calling the film a product of its time would be to let it off the hook, for even films that are dated can still be good films. It would also be an insult to films of its time. Instead, I would say that too much of the film just feels wrong – and wrong at any time in film history. For example, it breaks the fourth wall, but doesn’t know how to use the technique to enhance the story. Also, it seems to think speeding up the action will create comedy, ignoring the fact that speeding up a film only makes it look clunky and dated – just ask the Keystone Cops. And just for kicks, in the film’s final moments, it decides to let Islam in on the fun, proving, I suppose, that the film is an equal opportunity offender.

In the end, I gave up on the film. Oh, I finished it, of course, but I did so with an air of resignation. I simply did not believe that the film would get better or build to anything worth waiting around for. This is unlike me, for I believe even the worst films can have decent endings. However, at one point, Chow asks aloud, “When will this end?” and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I was asking the same question myself.

Now there are some people out there who will say that I missed the boat on this one, that all of the things I disliked about the film were not intended to be taken seriously. Essentially, they will be suggesting that I just didn’t get the humor. They may be right. However, I would add this caveat: I did laugh as I watched the film - once. I believe audiences deserve more. (on DVD)

2 stars

*The Diary of a Big Man is in Cantonese with English subtitles.

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