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City of Rock
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by Jay Seaver

"Good things happen when you hit the "Rock" button."
4 stars

As enjoyably goofy as I found Chengpeng "Da Peng" Dong's first film ("Jian Bing Man", aka "Pancake Man"), it didn't quite prepare me for how charmingly silly and sweet "City of Rock" would be. It's the most familiar rock & roll movie plot ever (mismatched band has to put on a show to save their inspiration from a greedy developer), but the jokes are good, the music is catchy, and the cast is awfully easy to like. You don't necessarily need to innovate if you do all that well.

The city in question is Ji'an, described as a border town in the northeastern part of China, where the hard-rocking band "Broken Guitar" burst upon the scene twenty years ago, inspiring not just seven-year-old Hu Liang but leading the city to rename its public square the Park of Rock and erect a Grand Guitar monument. Now, though, the Park of Rock is threatened as developer Ding Wei (Wang Jinsong) looks to turn it into a theme park, so Liang (Qiao Shan) cold-calls Beijing talent manager Cheng Gong (Da Peng), offering 500,000 yuan to help mount a show to save the park. When Gong gets there, though, he finds out that Liang has neither money nor band, and the scramble to form one yields ten-year-old keyboard player Qiao Meixi (Qu Junxi), who has to sneak out to practice because her mother is strict and intimidating; Taiwanese drummer Explosive (Li Hongqi), who came to Ji'an to find the tattoo artist he fell in love with at first sight; bassist Ding Jingquo (Coulee Na Zha), looking for a distraction since she's just broken up with her boyfriend and broken her leg; and Yang Shuangshu (Han Tongsheng), an elderly gynecologist who was Broken Guitar's original guitarist but had a fall on-stage and left the band before they hit it big.

It's a measure of how effective things are that non-Mandarin speakers in the audience should be able to thoroughly enjoy it despite the fact that something like a third of it will blow right past them, as the songs were not subtitled in English and the end credits reveal a ton of cameos by Chinese rockers (just about every character who only popped up in one scene). In some ways, this works better than expected; subtitling a song often leads to awkwardly translated rhymes that take up more of the viewer's attention than they're supposed to; the only time the lyrics are truly necessary to a joke they got a line of dialogue, and none of the cameos stopped the movie for a look-at-this reaction. I doubt Da Peng was particularly trying to make it accessible to non-Chinese audiences, but the fact that it worked and is even being distributed by a label that targets a broader audience indicates just how well everything else works, even if you can't spot the reference.

While writer/director Da Peng is first-billed among the cast, he's canny enough not to try and carry the movie on his own. As Gong, he's not exactly the straight man, but he much of his work is annoyed outbursts and double-takes, giving off the right air of befuddled frustration in reaction to the chaos until it's time to join it, contributing bits where he's amusingly greedy without becoming the villain. Most of the big laughs are given to Qiao Shan, a big guy who can play up the moments when Wu Liang is dumb enough to get into trouble without making the times when something goes right "in spite of" moments; he's cheery and good at slapstick and able to be kind of a weirdo without becoming annoying. As an odd couple, they work together well enough that one doesn't need to stare too hard at how little there actually is keeping them around each other in the story.

They're surrounded by a cast where everyone gets something funny to do, and sometimes more besides. "Coulee" Na Zha, for instance, gets introduced as the "condescending-young-punk-looker" stock character but brings out her genuine enthusiasm believably, and the way she has Jingquo get around on her broken leg does a nice job of reinforcing it (or it was an actual injury that Da Peng did an excellent job integrating into the film, in that one can actually chart time passing by how it heals up). Li Hongqi finds a distinct sort of amiable obliviousness from Qiao as "Explosive", and Han Tongsheng is great fun as he plays Shuangshu as able to slide between kindly grandfather/physician and serious rocker with ease, even while hiding that second side often requires deadpan silliness. Yuo Yunpeng and Dai Lele are a stitch opposites-attract types as Junxi's parents, and that's just a sample of how every character is played as folks one can recognize and believe in even while laughing at their antics.

And folks will frequently laugh hard, whether from the frequently cartoonish sight gags, well-executed double takes, and escalating chaos that somehow never really became mean-spirited. Da Peng and his team make Ji'an a colorful but believable place, able to make both the massive Grand Guitar and simple working-class neighborhoods feel like part of the same town. The film is suffused with whimsy, establishing that feel so early on that the band's touring vehicle being a repurposed fire truck never actually feels strange, and it lets Da Peng do fun visual gags from Junxi's t-shirts to what happens when someone presses the "Rock" button in their office. Even when the band has adversaries, they don't really have enemies, so the whole thing maintains an energetic positivity through to the end. It does this right up through the final musical number and encore which wound up expansive enough to have room for everybody in the movie without losing touch of Da Peng's eye for the absurd.

Yeah, this is a simple movie about dreamers wanting to save a theater at heart. But it's a pretty good one, even if you're not familiar with its particular brand of rock & roll.

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originally posted: 10/11/17 06:20:45
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Directed by
  Chengpeng Dong

Written by
  Chengpeng Dong

  Chengpeng Dong
  Shan Qiao
  Zha Na
  Tongsheng Han
  Hongqi Li

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