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20 Once Again (aka Miss Granny)
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by Jay Seaver

"Near-Miss Granny"
3 stars

When I said I'd be interested in seeing a remake of Korean comedy "Miss Granny" when I saw it at the Fantasia Festival last August, I didn't realize that one was already shooting in China. It's no shock - I still expect an English-language version sooner or later - although it would have been nice if it had cleaned up the ending or come up with some clever ideas to make up for what it inevitably loses in translation.

It's about 70-year-old widow Shen Mengjun (Grace Guei Ah-leh), who likes to brag at the senior center about her university-professor son Guobin (Zhao Li-xin), although less so about daughter-in-law Yangqin; she also tends to favor her aspiring musician grandson Yianjin (Luhan) over his twin sister Xinran. She's enough of a handful that when Yangqin winds up in the hospital and told to cut stress out of her life, the first thing everyone thinks about is to put Mengjun in a nursing home. Instead, she walks into a photographer's shop and comes out fifty years younger (and now played by Yang Zi-shan), and soon finds herself renting a room from Li Dahai (Wang De-shun), who has had a crush on her for over half a century, and singing in her grandson's band under the name Meng Lijun.

The latter is a play on the name of Taiwanese folk singer "Teresa" Teng Li-yun, although the period of Teng's underground popularity and Mengjun's youth doesn't quite line up. It's also worth noting that Yianjin's band "Forward" seems to be playing fairly lightweight Mandopop from the start - in the Korean film, the band was all gothed-up in black leather - which means that "Lijun" taking charge and making them a sort of throwback band is less funny, and in some ways less interesting: Although I couldn't recognize most of the pop-culture references right away, they're enough of a mishmash of various times and places that director Leste Chen Cheng-tao and writers Lin Xiao-ge & Endrix Ren Peng never seem to get a chance to play with the idea of recycled and evolving entertainment much. It's a missed opportunity that might have given the comedy a little more bite.

The film is funny enough, although having seen the exact same jokes in the exact same context just a few months earlier means they didn't have quite the same effect on me as those in the audience seeing them for the first time (and since the point of this remake is to make it more China-specific, some of them went well over my head). It's not a terribly tight script, though - Lin & Ren have the expected bits about how old ladies act and fit them all in there, along with the obvious structure of Lijun hiding her true identity and later awkwardness when Old Li finds out, checking them off but not building to anything. There are missed opportunities all around, and the way things get pushed toward a pre-ordained ending is very awkward.

On the plus side, though, there's Yang Zi-shan, who may quickly dispense with the physical reminders that Lijun is much older than she looks, but who picks up the sort of passive-aggressive nature Grace Guei gave the older Mengjun and really dives into just how much fun it is to be young and pretty, especially since she was a single mother practically before she had any chance to enjoy it the first time. She's expressive enough that (likely with some help from Chen's lighting/makeup crew) she can come across as the wily old lady we know her to be and the innocent young girl the others see without much trouble.

Grace Guei does a nice job of setting that scene as well, and there's a mostly-capable squad of actors around them. Pop star Luhan is occasionally a little out of his depth as Yianjin - gags about being attracted to your grandmother require either a lot more subtlety than Luhan and Chen give them or much less - but he seems to be a good sport about playing a musician who is not quite there yet. Wang De-shun gets some of the best material as the old friend who knows Lijun/Mengjun's secret, and doesn't waste it.

I do admit to wondering how I would react to this if coming in with a clean slate; I kind of wonder if I may be over-penalizing it for generally being a bit less than the Korean original rather than seeing an amusing concept executed reasonably well in most places. I'd still recommend the Korean version, and still wouldn't mind seeing a smart American one down the road.

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originally posted: 01/18/15 10:30:12
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Directed by
  Leste Chen

Written by
  Xiao-ge Lin
  Endrix Ren

  Zi-shann Yang
  Grace Guei
  De-shun Wang

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