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Pancake Man
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by Jay Seaver

"The kind of spoof where even if you don't get the jokes, you laugh at them."
4 stars

I doubt that "Pancake Man" ("Jian Bing Man" in the original Mandarin) will be a part of the next International Pancake Film Festival (a real thing in Boston and Chicago, look it up!); there just isn't enough pancake content to justify adding a feature to that shorts program, despite the novelty of adding Chinese jianbing to a lineup of American flapjacks, Belgian waffles, and French crepes. On the other hand, if there's a movies about making movies festival, this one is definitely funny enough to earn a place, even if the only one of many celebrity cameos and actors sending up their own image most westerners will recognize is Jean-Claude van Damme.

In it, Da Peng (also known as Dong Chengpeng), played by writer/director Da Peng, is an actor who has become a star playing losers on TV and in the movies, but he'd like to do something a little more serious or adventurous. He may get his chance when fan Wang Hai (Liang Chao) offers him ten million dollars to blow on whatever he wants and then a practically unlimited budget if he'll just cast Du Xiaoxiao ("Mabel" Yuan Shanghan), the actress he is smitten with, in a lead role to keep her from going to Hollywood. She jumps at the chance to star in his movie - a big fan of American superheroes, Da Peng has created "Jian Bing Man", about an alien who pretends to get superpowers from Chinese pancakes after the girl who sells them on the street is kidnapped and brainwashed into being an assassin - but the budget gets cut after a night out winds up with Da Peng the subject of a scandal, and he has already spent the money on a rare diamond for his girlfriend Amber (Amber Kuo) that has gone missing. His desperate plan - hook up with paparazzo Hu Lai (Cui Zhijia) and secretly shoot celebrities as if they were part of the movie.

There are a lot of gags in this movie that involve actors and other celebrities playing some version of themselves, and those not familiar with Chinese pop culture will find a lot flying way above their heads. Take, for instance, the early gags sticking the camera in Liu Yan's cleavage; having no idea who that was, it mostly came off as kind of tacky at first - having her "character" of Da Peng's longtime best friend developed a bit (including jokes about how people say showing her boobs off is her main talent) and seeing that she was playing "herself" made it click. Others like the mid-film appearances by Sandra Ng and Eric Tsang are done so broadly that even those who have never heard of them will laugh pretty hard, though there appear to be many more built around little more than recognition.

Fortunately, cameo recognition isn't the only tool Da Peng has in his belt by a long shot. Even if you don't know the names, the celebrity culture being lampooned is kind of universal, and even beyond that, he comes up with some pretty off-the-wall characters and ideas - Wang Hai's bodyguards, for instance, have a few of the best bits in the early going, and the movie being shot would be impressively loopy even without the shooting shenanigans (although not necessarily more so that things actually shot in China). A lot of the jokes are visual rather than verbal, and there isn't much let-up in how often they come. The filmmaker has no problem going to broad, painful slapstick, but also helps his cause by recognizing that he's making an underdog comedy, and almost everyone in the cast gets to be chasing a dream with sincerity as well as wackiness.

That cast is also filled with very funny people. Da Peng sometimes acts more like a facilitator himself, but gets a fair number of laughs, especially when dressed up as Jian Bing Man and clearly having a blast. He gets help from three funny ladies - Amber Kuo and Liu Yan are tremendously good sports about making themselves look silly, even as Liu proves to be the heart of the movie, and Yuan Shanghan is quite funny as an enthusiastic but not very good actress who also seems to have fun dressed up in the rubber suit. Cui Zhijia is a mild-mannered stitch as the cameraman.

Da Peng makes a couple of strange tonal shifts toward the end, but to his credit they all seem to be in the service of making the grand finale triumphantly zany, right down to one last dive down the self-referential rabbit hole. That's ultimately what makes it work - for all that Da Peng is making references, he seldom does so without a joke or a bit of genuine affection. Audiences, especially those of us outside his target, may not get all of the jokes, but we can at least see them working and wind up laughing hard.

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originally posted: 08/11/15 13:57:40
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Directed by
  Chengpeng Dong

Written by
  Chengpeng Dong

  Chengpeng Dong
  Mabel Yuan
  Yan Liu
  Amber Kuo
  Jean-Claude Van Damme

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