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Buddies in India

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/03/17 14:50:52

"A new Journey to the West."
3 stars (Average)

Though "Kung Fu Yoga" likely has the higher American profile of the two Chinese movies involving weird, action-filled trips to India released to coincide with the Lunar New Year, "Buddies in India" actually had the bigger opening weekend in China. The directorial debut of star Wang Baoqiang, it’s colorful and silly, often to the point of tackiness, though usually funny in spite of itself.

It opens at the home of Wu Kong (Wang), which aside from being full of the monkeys he trains is also notable for being surrounded by a massive excavation, as it is smack dab in the middle of the site of a new skyscraper. Tang Sen (Bai Ke), the son of the construction company’s owner, is attempting to drive him out, but so far Wu and his monkeys are repelling all attacks. Things take an odd turn when Tang’s father has a heart attack while watching the video feed, and his dying words are that his will is located in India, and he thinks that Tang should have Wu’s protection when going to retrieve it. Wu reluctantly agrees, and they are met by a local employee of the company, Zhu “Piggy” Tianteng (Yue Yunpeng), and the trio start out on a quest that will have them cross paths with Wu Jing (Liu Yan), a one-night stand of Tang’s who is still upset years later; two bumbling assassins hired by Tang’s uncle; and a bunch of local eccentricity.

A quick look at the names will alert one that this road movie is at the very least inspired by one of China’s most famous stories, Journey to the West (and most ubiquitous - another comedic take on the material is opening the very next week!), although it is thoroughly contemporary and, a couple of throwaway jokes aside, non-supernatural. People with more experience with the story can weigh in on how closely it tracks the source material, but it’s a fun way for Wang to give his movie a little structure - road movies can get away from a filmmaker if he doesn’t nail a few things down - along with a few fun bits of inspiration: The opening take on the Monkey King’s “havoc in heaven” is a fun action scene to kick things off with, and one can sense the love in a cameo at the end of the film even before the credits make it explicit.

Wang also shows a pretty good sense of his own skills; he played the unwanted traveling companion who tended to attract trouble in hits Lost on Journey and Lost in Thailand, and Wu Kong is cut from a similar cloth, although he’s more obviously sympathetic from the start here. He gives a laid-back performance as Wu Kong, playing his greater ease with monkeys than humans as eccentricity rather than hostility, making sure the character’s hurt at potentially losing all he has is the right mix of sadness and anger for any given moment, and being a game physical performer whenever things slide toward slapstick or action. Bai Ke’s Tang is written as ridiculous or selfish more because he’s immature than actually mean, and sometimes it’s hard for him to give a hint of the character’s better nature through the exaggerated props and costuming he’s given to work with. Bai’s at his best when he’s got Tang Sen feeling sadness or regret, although he’s still got good chemistry with Wang when Tang’s got to be obnoxious, dragging his reluctant partner into screwy situations.

Wang’s willingness to play things on the broad side winds up a double-edged sword - when something is working, the bright colors and unpredictability are good for pretty big smiles; when it’s not, the film can be cringe-worthy. There’s a chili pepper-eating contest sequence, for instance, that crams a remarkable number of gags based on ethnic stereotypes into about five minutes and a parody song that, at least from the subtitles, seems pretty tacky, and a number of jokes that seem more generally unfunny but still get drawn out. Wang also has a bit of a hard time getting the right sort of use out of Piggy and Wu Jing, knowing he needs them early and later but not getting a lot from cutting away to them even though he can see that having them disappear would not be satisfying easier. The more dramatic parts of the script are sort of shaky, too.

It’s a different sort of Indian adventure than the one playing next to it in the foreign theaters that play Chinese movies, more wacky slapstick than goofy adventure, and this type of comedy doesn’t travel quite so well as some. It’s fairly entertaining in spots, and admirable in how it doesn’t bog down or get overstuffed. Wang’s not yet as good a writer/director as he is an actor, but he does have a better grasp on what he’s doing than some of his colleagues who move behind the camera.

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