The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - BY LIU JUE (刘珏)

Fast be­com­ing China's smartest com­edy troupe, Mr.don­key pro­duc­ers Kaixin Mahua re­turn with a sassy new bodyswap com­edy that's al­ready set the main­land box­of­fice alight. Nev­er­say­die ex­plores tra­di­tional gen­der roles, but does it de­liver a mod­ern twist?

It’s the age-old tale: boy meets girl, boy swaps bod­ies with girl, boy quar­rels with girl, one of them en­ters a mixed mar­tial arts com­pe­ti­tion. In the mean­time, each makes a fool of them­selves deal­ing with their new gen­der, be­fore end­ing up fall­ing in love—just in time for them to be re­turned to their own bod­ies. The nar­ra­tive may have the hall­marks of cliché, but nov­elty is hardly the rea­son why peo­ple go to the cin­ema.

In the case of Never Say Die, the third film from com­edy troupe Kaixin Mahua, the bizarre plot only prom­ises to en­ter­tain with its tale of star re­porter Ma Xiao (Ma Li) and un­der­dog MMA fighter Aidisheng (Allen Ai). The boxer has been ac­cused of brib­ing his op­po­nent in a pre­vi­ous match, but switches bod­ies with the re­porter af­ter be­ing struck by light­ning. De­spite start­ing out as sworn en­e­mies, the two de­cide to work to­gether to win the cham­pi­onship. Along the way, the au­di­ence is treated to some sur­pris­ingly good fight­ing se­quences (the Chi­nese ti­tle trans­lates to “The Shy Iron Fist”), non­stop jokes, ro­mance, and a feel-good story.

The film is the third high­est-gross­ing film of the year, with more than 2 bil­lion RMB cur­rently in box of­fice, but when it comes to mass mar­ket com­edy on the Chi­nese main­land, few are more ex­pe­ri­enced than Kaixin Mahua.

Orig­i­nally a the­atri­cal com­pany es­tab­lished in 2003 with a mis­sion state­ment of “en­ter­tain the peo­ple,” Mahua has trav­eled around over 40 cities across China to put on over 2,000 shows—on av­er­age 10 a month—since then. Tar­get­ing the Spring Fes­ti­val

hol­i­day en­ter­tain­ment mar­ket, Mahua pro­duced orig­i­nal come­dies, then later mu­si­cals, and now has more than two dozen suc­cess­ful plays in its reper­toire.

The 2015 hit Good­bye, Mr. Loser was Mahua’s first at­tempt at adapt­ing its scripts for the big screen; the film be­came a sleeper hit with a box of­fice of 1.4 bil­lion RMB. In 2016, Mahua re­leased its se­cond film, Mr. Don­key, a sharp, grimly re­al­is­tic black com­edy set dur­ing the Repub­lic of China, which was con­sid­ered by many to be the “movie of the year” with an 8.3 rat­ing on De­spite ac­claim, though, the film’s suc­cess was rel­a­tively mod­est at the box of­fice, earn­ing only 172 mil­lion RMB, about an eighth of Mahua’s first com­edy.

The new film’s clas­sic, Freaky Fri­day- style body swap­ping plot may have been an at­tempt to win back a larger, main­stream au­di­ence, af­ter the ma­ture cri­tique of cor­rup­tion and the op­pres­sion of women in so­ci­ety that Mr. Don­key of­fered. In­deed, much like the time-trav­el­ing plot of Mr. Loser, many of Never Say Die’s jokes are based on gen­der-bend­ing tropes, par­tic­u­larly the “tomboy” and “ef­fem­i­nate man” stereo­types so com­mon in Chi­nese cin­ema. Lead ac­tress Ma Li, who has a rich ex­pe­ri­ence on the Mahua theater stage, has been type­cast for

such a role, hav­ing pre­vi­ously played a boy­ish teenage girl in Mr. Loser and a trans­gen­der woman in the play The Count of Mount Wu­long.

Many fe­male roles in Chi­nese come­dies get their punch­lines from jokes about their per­ceived lack of tra­di­tional fem­i­nine qual­i­ties and looks. In 2015, con­tro­versy broke out over a CCTV New Year’s Gala com­edy sketch fea­tur­ing a “god­dess” and a nühanzi (lit­er­ally “manly woman”) side-by-side; many pointed out that the so-called “manly woman” was just an or­di­nary woman with­out a su­per­model’s body. But af­ter ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ism, Jia Ling, who played the “manly woman,” ex­pressed con­cern that such crit­i­cism may fur­ther block the al­ready nar­row ca­reer paths of fe­male co­me­di­ans.

At the core of Never Say Die is a pol­ished plots, char­ac­ters, and di­a­logue guar­an­teed to tickle your funny bone— although some of the jokes may go over non-chi­nese heads. With in­flu­ences that range from clas­sic Hol­ly­wood and Hong Kong come­dies to Tai­wanese di­rec­tor Kevin Chu Yen-ping’s Shaolin Popey com­edy kung fu se­ries, lo­cal au­di­ences will in­stantly rec­og­nize the pop cul­ture ref­er­ences, such as the melo­dra­matic theme tune to 1983 wuxia TV se­ries Le­gend of the Con­dor He­roes, which pre­vi­ously served as a ma­jor el­e­ment in Hong Kong ac­tor-di­rec­tor Stephen Chow’s 2016 The Mer­maid.

Mean­while, some of the fun­ni­est scenes in the films are wuli­tou (无厘头) style, a term from Can­tonese mean­ing “at ran­dom, with­out a rea­son, or con­fus­ing.” It refers to a grass­roots com­edy style fea­tur­ing ridicu­lous, il­log­i­cal, and seem­ingly-ir­rel­e­vant acts, pop­u­lar­ized by Chow in the early 1990s.

How­ever, Never Say Die is still very much an orig­i­nal work; it in­vokes cer­tain for­mu­las of sto­ry­telling, but man­ages to en­gage the au­di­ence with fresh ma­te­rial. Its box-of­fice suc­cess may in fact serve as the proof that a new Chi­nese com­edy genre has been born.

Master Zhang pre­pares to teach his in­fa­mous fin­ish­ing moves to Aidisheng

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