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Devil and Angel
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by Jay Seaver

"Either not enough dumb jokes or too much other stuff."
3 stars

The very first scene of "Devil and Angel" makes it clear what sort of broad comedy it's going to be, and it's a pretty dumb one. And it's not a dumb comedy that is secretly kind of clever; it's a dumb comedy that makes dumb jokes for more than a little too long, with surprisingly few new and bizarre characters added to the mix as the old ones get played out. That said, it's a dumb comedy whose jokes often make me laugh, and that is worth something.

The main pairing of the film is Zha Xiaodao ("Betty" Sun Li), a well-educated but socially awkward young woman who has just been fired from her job as an accountant for exposing her boss's bad practices, and Mo Feili (Deng Chao), a debt collector with a bad attitude possibly related to his extreme insomnia. When Xiaodao goes to see guru Zhe Ergen (Liang Chao), she's told to spend some time with Feili, not knowing that Zhe actually runs the business Feili works for and mostly wants her to make sure the right amount is collected because Feili is bad at math. It turns out, of course, that their first collection is from a business owned by Xiaodao's old boss (Wang Yanhui), who sics middle-manager Ji (Luan Yuanhui) and angry Russian butcher Ivanov Lazluakadoli (Xu Kejia) on them. But are they as threatening as Feili's amorous landlord "Chris" Guo Sisi (Dai Lele)?

Yeah, probably, although with Sisi comes a part of what makes the film kind of fun: The weird underground space where she, Feili, and many others live, carved out of an abandoned industrial space and managing to look cool despite seeming to come from a post-apocalyptic film more than the usual look of modern China. It's not the only spot where the filmmakers choose nifty locations and fill them with people that match - a segment set in a wax-museum warehouse with a bunch of henchmen dressed up to look like exhibits makes little sense but is fun to watch - and, indeed, the film is fairly dynamic visually for something that started life as a play, whether from well-timed slapstick to detailed environments.

Its two leads are assets too; the characters are farcical in opposing ways and though they don't ever change that much, Sun Li and Deng Chao make that work, though, pouring a bunch of energy into their comedy and seldom getting to the point where the characters are either overly obnoxious or too far from what made them entertaining because they've grown more tolerant of each other. They're surrounded by some entertaining folks in support - Liang Chao, Dai Lele, and Xu Kejia (playing the most Chinese-looking Russian dude you'll ever see) - even if none of that crew are quite scene-stealers.

And some scenes could use stealing, or at least a little more interest when things shift away from Xiaodao and Feili for necessary reasons. Clocking in at a bit over two hours, Devil and Angel runs well past the point where slapstick comedy starts to wear the audience out, and it doesn't offer a whole lot else. Certainly, bits of comedy may be lost in translation quite literally - the people doing the subtitles often have a great deal of trouble getting across why this bit of mangled Mandarin coming out of Feili's mouth is meant to be amusing wordplay, and I don't know whether the writers apparently making a joke that Guo Sisi insists on "Chris" as an English name know that plenty of women use it too. Mostly, the film is just stretched rather thin at times - the actual plot the collectors find themselves inside is vague, which is okay as long as the comedy never lets up, but the bad guys aren't funny enough and there are subplots and double-crosses that just bog things down, and an aim at pairing Feili and Xiaodao that the filmmakers don't quite resist hard enough (though they show admirable restraint).

When you've got nothing but dumb jokes, it really behooves you as a filmmaker to either make them brilliant or wrap things up before the audience has had enough. "Devil and Angel" suffers from being pretty good when it's on but not compacting that into something eighty or ninety minutes long, where the viewer has no time to think on its shortcomings or second-guess the bits he or she did laugh at.

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originally posted: 01/04/16 10:04:01
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Directed by
  Baimei Yu
  Chao Deng

Written by

  Chao Deng
  Betty Li Sun
  Lele Dai
  Chao Liang

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