Like Ashley Madison subscribers, a bra designer pursues an elusive transgression in “Lost in Hong Kong,” a tamer but still agreeable follow-up to helmer-thesp Xu Zheng’s directorial debut, the road-trip comedy “Lost in Thailand,” which made history as China’s highest-grossing domestic film until this past July. Trading the earlier film’s goofy fish-out-of-water gags for robust action acrobatics and fail-safe family drama, the laffer induces the warm-and-fuzzies as an ode to Hong Kong cinema and its role in mainland Gen-Xers’ sentimental coming of age. Although it’ll take a miracle to dethrone reigning B.O. champ “Monster Hunt,” the pic will still be heartily embraced at home and find a fair response abroad via day-and-date openings Stateside, in Blighty and Oz.
The pic completes a trilogy of road movies originating with “Lost on Journey” (2010), written and directed by the Hong Kong duo of Raymond Yip and Manfred Wong; Xu (“No Man’s Land”) and Wang Baoqiang (“Kungfu Jungle”) were cast as an odd couple, and reunited for “Lost in Thailand.” All three comedies feature a stressed-out businessman trying to shake off a gullible doofus, exploiting topical mainland wanderlust to take stock of core values — money, career and marriage, respectively.
Compared with “Journey,” which made no bones about its main character keeping a live-in mistress, “Lost in Hong Kong” (co-written by four scribes including Ning Hao’s wife, Xing Aina) is so squeaky-clean that even the act of reminiscing about a half-finished kiss constitutes an adulterous thought crime. Yet, while Xu is somewhat Judd Apatow-like in espousing monogamy (the film recalls “This Is 40” in its representation of frayed married life), he boasts a canny understanding of male peccadilloes, and the film’s theme of coming to terms with one’s failed potential and wilted dreams contains subtle historical underpinnings that will resonate especially with mainlanders in their 40s.
A prologue set in 1995 shows gauche art student Xu Lai (Xu, in a mop-like wig) dating head-turning beauty Yang Yi (Du Juan, “American Dreams in China”), but they can’t even make it to first base. Xu winds up marrying Cai Bo (Vicki Zhao, “Dearest”), nicknamed Spinach, and channels his artistic impulses into bra designs for his father-in-law’s lingerie enterprise. Twenty years on, they enjoy a cushy married life whose only disappointment is their failure to conceive a child — though not for lack of trying, as demonstrated by a scene that crosscuts their bone-crunching bedroom gymnastics with a TV wrestling match.
However, when Yang, now a world-renowned artist, invites Xu to her exhibition opening in Hong Kong, his heart goes aflutter. As often happens with such capers, the road to finish their “uncompleted first kiss” is strewn with obstacles, the biggest one being Xu’s filmmaker-wannabe brother-in-law Lala (Bao Beier), who stalks him everywhere with a video camera.
Xu and Lala’s calamitous escapade get them embroiled in a homicide, a la “Rear Window” and “Blow Up,” which escalates with run-ins with cops, gangsters and perverts. Ace Hong Kong action director Chin Ka-lok heats things up with technically seamless physical gambits that, despite their silliness, never descend into sloppy melees. The climax, in particular, lives up to expectations with a crazy yet totally tense crisis that vividly symbolizes the hazardous, even lethal balancing act a married man must make between fantasy and fidelity.
Unlike “Lost in Thailand,” which rolled out gags like sushi on a conveyor belt, “Lost in Hong Kong,” while still madcap in its pacing, takes the necessary time and thought to build up a comical situation that yields higher dramatic dividends, as when the characters accidentally land in the middle of a film shoot of “Young & Dangerous,” triggering major plot turns. Though not laugh-out-loud funny, the ubiquitous film homage is cleverly and affectionately played — whether it’s a sentimental montage of movie billboards Xu and Yang painted, or a chase sequence through various dens of vice drawn from Hong Kong’s most celebrated film genres — genres that are now being sanitized to cater to mainland market.
Compared with the Xu-Wang pairing in previous outings, the lead actor’s chemistry with his co-star here is pretty weak — not just because Lala is a niggling, self-centered prat, but because Bao’s perf is loud, grating and devoid of personal charisma. Zhao, who’s not around much until the denouement, is given too flat a character to work with. Model-turned-actress Du fares better, exuding haughtiness and flamingo-like grace, and registering strongly as a self-possessed, articulate woman rather than the goddess of Xu’s daydreams.
The pic is littered with cameo appearances by veteran actors who enlivened Hong Kong cinema with their supporting turns, such as Sam Lee, Eric Kot, Lawrence Cheng, Paul Yip and Bobby Ng, as well as Wong Jing, kingpin of kitschy cinema. Like the recent sleeper comedy “Jianbing Man,” they are cast in a specific mainland context, the comic nuance of which even Hong Kong viewers will miss. Nevertheless, considering tensions between Hong Kongers and mainland tourists inundating the enclave, Xu has tactfully refrained from wringing cheap culture-clash laughs.
Tech credits are serviceable. Middle-aged Chinese viewers will bask in the wall-to-wall score of ’90s Cantopop, but the ironic subtext of the lyrics will be lost on millennials.