Audaciously stylish and visually mesmerizing, Life Is Cheap aims to evoke the uncertain mood of present-day Hong Kong as viewed from the perspective of an Asian-American naif. Director Wayne Wang’s tart take on the conundrum of Chinese identity has all the narrative logic of a tilted pinball machine.
Screenwriter-star Spencer Nakasako is a half-Chinese, half-Japanese, all-American stablehand from San Francisco who has agreed to act as a courier for a San Francisco Triad, the Chinese mafia, in return for an all-expenses-paid sojourn in Hong Kong. The black-Stetsoned, cowboy-booted hero wants to see the legendary port before its takeover by China. In the wake of Tiananmen Square, it’s a city of ’51/2 million sitting ducks’.
Handcuffed to an attache case destined for the ‘Big Boss’ in Hong Kong, the hero seeks to unlock the enigma of ‘5,000 years of Chinese culture’. Wang skewers the lofty notion of Chinese self-superiority by populating his film with a widely variegated gallery of funny and flawed characters.