There’s a bit of everything and most of it works in “Chasing Dream,” the first feature directed by Hong Kong ace Johnnie To since “Three” in 2016. Far from what fans of To’s hard-boiled crime dramas such as “Drug War” and “Election” might have expected, “Chasing Dream” invokes everything from gritty 1930s Warner Brothers musicals to fizzy screwball rom-coms and “Rocky” as it follows an MMA fighter and an aspiring singer who team up to take on the world and chase the Chinese Dream. Poking fun at blind ambition and celebrity culture while propelling viewers on a dizzy ride of heightened realism and unabashed melodrama, “Chasing Dream” has some clunky plot contrivances and lacks emotional depth, but for sheer entertainment value, it delivers handsomely.
A box-office disappointment in Mainland cinemas in November, this production from To’s Milkyway Image company could get a new lease of life following its international premiere at the Far East Film Festival in Udine. It’s not the type of film that made To famous internationally, but its winning spirit and style should help secure widespread VOD exposure at the very least.
“Chasing Dream” opens in traditional boxing movie territory: Tiger (Jacky Heung, son of China Star Movie boss Charles Heung) has just used his signature “Spinning Revolver” maneuver to win another bone-crunching bout in the octagon. Like many a movie pugilist before him, Tiger supplements his income by working as a debt collector for his trainer, Gao (Bin Zi).
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No sooner has Tiger climbed out of the ring than he’s chasing Cuckoo (Keru Wang, “Youth”), a homeless young singer heavily in debt to Gao. The tone is dark as Tiger takes Cuckoo to his warehouse home and sends her out to work off the debt as a pole dancer and car wash girl. Things begin to lighten up when Cuckoo escapes and makes a frantic and funny dash to a number of venues hosting auditions for “Perfect Diva,” a popular “China Idol”-like TV talent show.
The duo start to click when Cuckoo tells Tiger that songs she wrote have been stolen and recorded by her ex-boyfriend, Qu Fengfeng (Ma Xiaohui), a vain pop star and “Perfect Diva” judge. Her desire for revenge and fame helps Tiger soften up and admit his body’s a wreck and he’d rather quit fighting and open a hot-pot restaurant.
The screenplay, co-written by To’s long time collaborator Wai Ka-fai, keeps romance at bay until practically the closing curtain. For Tiger and Cuckoo, the focus is squarely on forming a pragmatic partnership to achieve social and career goals. While Tiger’s plan to hang up his gloves and resist the usual temptation of “one last fight” unfolds in fairly straightforward fashion, Cuckoo’s quest takes many charming and sharply satirical turns.
In one delightful sequence, Tiger rounds up a host of musicians that owe Gao money and turns them into a hot backing band for Cuckoo. The hysterical adulation of celebrities and hyped-up formats of TV talent shows are mocked in scenes showing “Perfect Diva” audiences going bananas when Qu Fengfeng strikes poses and performs facial “looks” like some kind of Chinese Zoolander. Best of all is a great running gag involving Pearl (Kelly Yu, terrific), a Joan Jett-like singer who remains in the competition despite — or perhaps because of — a mounting list of major physical injuries.
Less successful is the attempt to bring real emotional heft to the tale. Tiger’s re-connection with his cash-strapped former trainer Ma Qing (Shao Bing), and Cuckoo’s tearful reunion with her grandmother (Cao Yang) are more obligatory than rewarding. But these are relatively minor infractions in the overall scheme of a story that’s snappily edited by Milkyway regular David Richardson, crisply filmed in bright colors by veteran DP Cheng Siu-keung (“Ip Man 4: The Finale”) and includes a fabulous fantasy musical number that will be the film’s highlight for many viewers.
Heung is fine as the slightly dim slugger but this is really Wang’s show. The talented dancer and singer gives a sparkling performance as the troubled girl who gradually finds her angelic voice. A top supporting cast includes Wu Yitong as an amusingly serious “Perfect Diva” judge, and the whole show bounces along nicely to catchy tunes and splendid incidental music by the consistently excellent Peter Kam.