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Sinking City: Capsule Odyssey, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Affordable housing that's not quite worth it."
2 stars

Stephen and Nero Ng kick "The Sinking City" off with a satirical, clever hook that seems like it could lead to a lot of fun places, but which never really becomes a story. An entertaining cast and a steady stream of chuckle-worthy gags help things move along, and the Ngs thankfully don't try to stretch this out too far. Still, for what seems like a lot of potential, there's not a lot of meat on these bones.

Buying a home in Hong Kong has, apparently, not gotten any easier since Pang Ho-cheung's Dream Home, although Chi-hin (Chau Pak-ho) has a less desperate plan - while girlfriend Won Yi (Jacqueline Chong Si-man) moves back in with her mother, he will say he is working in New York while actually moving into the tiny apartment of Shing (Andrew Lam Man-ching), who rents the other "capsules" set up in the living room to would-be gangster Fung (Babyjohn Choi Hon-yik), who got into crime to fight but keeps getting stuck smuggling; ex-con Sui-cheung (Bob Lam Shing-pun), unnerved to see his accused-rapist cellmate has a girlfriend; and delivery truck driver Ming (Louis Cheung Kai-chung), who can't exactly get busy with his own girl in those tight quarters.

Hong Kong isn't what it used to be in The Sinking City; Chi-hin's goals of working in real estate have him instead paid to post about it on Facebook while Fung is starting to realize that his life is just never going to become the Johnnie To movie he imagines, and you can find something similar going on with most of the ensemble. The Ngs only rarely have them encounter the other side of the city that can actually afford a nice place, and there's the sense that they want the film to be more cutting at those points than the The Sinking City winds up being: Despite a moment or two when the audience sees how desperate people are to get "on board" (HK slang for home ownership) or how blithe those who are about the rest of the city, the filmmakers never seem zeroed in on a target.

That's not just a matter of having serious themes underneath the silliness, either - the filmmakers seem to tire of the comic set-ups fairly quickly. After a couple of amusing gags where Chi-hin fakes being in New York on social media, that story is just set aside, and not much comes of what takes its place, either. Other characters' stories similarly fizzle, until the last act is about trying to use a dog they found to collect a multi-million dollar reward only to stumble into a kidnapping. It's got enjoyably chaotic moments looking to become a sort of comedy avalanche but never quite managing it, and a final resolution that doesn't quite feel right even before it leads into a labored next-to-the-credits bit.

It almost works, though, in part because the Ngs are more willing to go too far than to stop a joke short, making for some enjoyably crude and anarchic Hong Kong humor, and in part because they've got a group with pretty good comic chops. Chau Pak-ho captures Chi-hin as a decent guy who is nevertheless able to slip into scamming fairly easily, leading a cast where everyone is generally able to play both sides of a gag and do it well. Lam Man-ching especially impresses with his deadpan battiness as Shing, while Babyhohn Choi seems to be having a blast playing Fung as a would-be tough guy ready to snap. Relatively few of his comedic roles have crossed the Pacific with as high a profile as his "handsome rookie ____" parts, so it may not really be a departure, but it's fun to see him cut loose. It's a shame we didn't get to see more of Jacqueline Chong and Ava Yu as the women in Chi-hin's life; they both make a strong impression.

I'm curious how well this film was received in its native Hong Kong; aside from being about local concerns, it's got a very small English-language footprint on the internet and a release pattern that suggests a surprise hit rather than an expected one. It may be the sort of comedy that just doesn't translate well except for the broadest, most visual jokes, although it certainly feels like there would be problems regardless.

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originally posted: 09/12/17 03:27:47
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Directed by
  Stephen Ng
  Nero Ng

Written by
  Nero Ng
  Stephen Ng

  Pak-ho Chau
  Andrew Lam
  Babyjohn Choi
  Louis Cheung
  Bob Lam

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