No fewer than 174 famous faces show up in the patchy Cantonese comedy “72 Tenants of Prosperity,” the latest reworking of a 1945 Shanghai play. All but eliminating the rotten landlords and corrupt officials who made life hell for downtrodden tenants in the original, this third pic-version is moderately chucklesome but sorely lacks the triumph-of-the-underdog factor that’s galvanized auds over the years. Released across much of Asia on Feb. 11 to coincide with the Lunar New Year holiday, the pic should reap a prosperous regional run on its star wattage but has slender prospects beyond Chinese-lingo territories.
The 1945 play was first filmed on the mainland in black-and-white in 1963 and, most famously, 10 years later in color by Shaw Bros., as the smash hit “The House of 72 Tenants.” Back in business after a seven-year hiatus, the Shaw Bros.’ production arm has followed its 2009 hit “Turning Point” with this very loose update.
The only Cantonese feature released in 1973, “The House of 72 Tenants” bested the B.O. of any Bruce Lee movie and is widely regarded as having helped to kickstart the revival of Cantonese comedy and its ’70s and ’80s golden age. Like that film, “Prosperity” counts TVB, Shaw’s TV wing, as a production partner.
Everything’s bright, bouncy and funny at first. Recreating the ’73 film’s main title design and opening shot, the pic launches with a flashback to feudin’, fussin’ and fightin’ on Sai Yeung Choi Street, Mongkok, circa 1970. Forty years later, the place has become a fiercely competitive cluster of electronics shops.
A zippy song-and-dance number establishes Shek Kin (Jacky Cheung) and Ha Kung (Eric Tsang, also producing and co-helming) as bitter rivals in the cell-phone business. Best buddies all those years ago, the duo fell out when both fell in love with Hung (Anita Yuen), who married Ha based on a coin toss.
Worse still for the squabbling shopkeepers, Shek’s daughter, Jade (Stephy Tang, delightful), a crew member on Japanese porn movies, is attracted to Tai Ling (Bosco Wong), Ha’s computer-geek son. And if that’s not enough Romeo-and-Juliet romance, scripters Patrick Kong (co-helming with Eric Tsang and Chung Shu-kai) and Wong Yeung-tat throw Shek’s son, Taro (Wong Cho-lam) into some amusing tough-love clinches with Nui (Linda Chung), Ha’s kung-fu-kickin’ daughter.
Meanwhile, an unnamed mainland businessman (vet thesp-helmer Leung Tin, also in the ’73 version) seems to be plotting to oust everyone from Sai Yeung Choi Street and build a megacomplex. Just when the source material’s famed anti-authority and anti-corruption sentiments look as though they’re about to kick in, the threat is unexpectedly neutralized; without a bent cop or corrupt politician in sight, there’s no real threat to anyone besides an acid-throwing saboteur with an old score to settle.
Short on sparkling dialogue, the pic tries desperately to please, and scores intermittently with slapstick and dozens of goofy characters. But even with a cavalcade of stars — including popster-thesp Kelly Chen (who sings), Michael Tse (reviving his “Laughing Gor” character) and old-timers Nancy Sit and Wu Fung giving it their all — the movie never becomes the rousing, cast-of-a-lifetime tribute to Cantonese comedy it wants to be.
Lensing of candy-colored decors and costumes is fine; ’70s flashbacks provide the visual highlight. Costume designer Connie Au-yeung must have trawled every retro boutique and thrift shop in Hong Kong to assemble such glorious kitschy ensembles. End credits must set some sort of record for sponsor logos.