With its gravity-defying stunts and logic-resistant plot twists, its kinky couture and kinkier sex, “Switch” dishes out splashy thrills so indiscriminately, it winds up feeling like a theme park with more distractions than attractions. Sending a star-studded cast of actors from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China on a globetrotting adventure to snatch an antique scroll, mainland helmer Jay Sun’s blockbuster is eye-popping but also a bit of an eyesore; it epitomizes the kind of so-bad-it’s-good kitsch that will sill well in genre ancillary. Pic opened strong on the mainland despite abysmal word of mouth, and only the complete absence of self-parody will prevent it from achieving cult status. Vociferous criticism on China’s microblogs have ironically raised the film’s profile.
To Western auds, “Switch” may suggest a cheesy knockoff of the “Mission: Impossible” and James Bond series, though Sun’s anything-goes script boasts a smattering of Asian influences, from Bollywood to the art-theft subgenre exemplified by Korean helmer Park Hee-kon’s “The Insadong Mysteries” (2009) to Hong Kong Interpol adventures like Jingle Ma’s “Tokyo Raiders” (2000). In fact, it’s best viewed as a flashier, tackier companion piece to the “Naked” series scripted and produced by Wong Jing.
Sun, who studied music and photography in the U.S., contributed to the first wave of contempo mainland romantic comedies by producing the popular “Call for Love” (2007) and its 2008 sequel, “Fit Lover.” The ragtag style in “Switch” echoes the omnibus structure of those two films while further indulging the director’s glossy tendencies. The flashy, tacky result comes close to flirting with camp, although it ultimately takes itself too seriously to work as pure escapism.
In Dubai, operators of a British smuggling ring hit on the idea of stealing the precious Yuan Dynasty painting “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” by Huang Gongwang. During the Ming Dynasty, the scroll was ripped in two halves, now kept separately in Taipei’s National Palace Museum and Hangzhou’s Zhejiang Art Museum. But another has designs on the artwork: Toshio Yamamoto (Tong Dawei), the grandson of a Japanese general who died trying to steal it during WWII. He dispatches his foxy assassins to nab the Taipei half of the painting, but the Brits beat them to it.
Hong Kong special agent Xiao Jinhan (Andy Lau) receives orders to retrieve the stolen piece for a state ceremony that will be held to rejoin the two halves. Incidentally, his wife, Yuyan (Zhang Jingchu), is an insurance company executive assigned to guard the painting’s other half in the Zhejiang Art Museum; she does so by installing a security device that can also microwave popcorn. Yamamoto heads to Hangzhou to meet “the Empress” (Siqin Gaowa), a freakier female version of Fu Manchu, who promises to procure the scroll. Meanwhile, Xiao teams up with Agent Lisa (Lin Chi-ling) but Yamato’s rollerblading babes prove a menace.
The film’s English title is apt, as not only does the painting get switched many times, but the characters change identities, allegiances and locations with abandon. From a fencing match that breaks all rules of continuity to “Mission: Impossible”-style peel-off masks, “Switch” is littered with so many hokey “what was that about?” moments that making sense of the plot becomes a pointless exercise, a problem exacerbated by choppy editing. And for all the brouhaha about the titular painting, there’s not even one closeup of it.
Lau gives his all to the role of tough action hero and suave romantic lead, while Zhang’s attempts to retain her dignity as a kickass agent and loving wife are compromised by the titillating French-maid costume she has to wear constantly. Lin seldom convinces as a leading lady, rehashing the decorative poses that got her through a recent spate of romantic comedies.
Tong clearly relishes subverting his upstanding-character persona as Yamamoto, a peroxide-blond criminal whose sadomasochism and raging Oedipal complex are traits rarely explored in mainstream mainland films. Indeed, in his sendup of Japonaiserie, Sun almost seems to be trying to outdo Takashi Miike’s V-cinema period or Nikkatsu’s Sushi Typhoon series; the action scenes involving Yamamoto are borderline racist and proudly sexist with their sleazily dressed femmes, nasty violence and garish sets.
The fight sequences, designed by Robert Francis Brown and Zhang Peng, are so on-the-nose that they have a certain wackiness, especially those set in Dubai’s Burj Al Arab Hotel. Shao Dan and action lenser Don McCuaig handled the swooping camerawork, lending an opulent sheen to their long shots of city skylines and lush lakeside imagery. Roc Chen’s score makes showy use of classical music, especially excerpts from Elgar’s Cello Concerto, to enigmatic but unvaried effect. The film was released in China as a 3D conversion, but the version caught in Hong Kong was in 2D, with nine minutes trimmed from the mainland original.