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What a Wonderful Family! (2017)
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by Jay Seaver

"Not quite so wonderful as the one in Japan, but not bad."
3 stars

Yoji Yamada's "What a Wonderful Family!" was one of the best comedies I saw in 2016, and that other movies more likely to get an American release pushed ahead of it in my review queue is something I rather regret, both because it was a missed opportunity to bring some attention to a very funny movie and because it would have had something more concrete to refer to when writing up this Chinese version arriving roughly a year later - am I remembering the Japanese as better than it was and therefore seeing the remake fall short of an ideal rather than a reality, are the jokes blunted because they trigger memory before they trigger laughter, or is this just what it looks like, a copy that isn't quite as sharp as the original.

Both movies feature a large family that mostly lives under one roof. Retired civil servant Wen Jinghui (Lee Lichun) and his wife Pan (Zhang Weixin) bought this house in the Beijing suburbs a dozen years ago, and share it with their two sons, mild-mannered piano tuner Cong (Huang Lei) and businessman Yuan (He Jiong), as well as Yuan's wife Ding (Li Sun) and their young sons Jun and Han. Middle daughter Jing (Christina Hai Qing) moved out when she married her equally high-strung and eccentric husband Wanli (Wang Xun), and Cong is considering it as he prepares to propose to his girlfriend Lin (Kirsten Ren Rongxuan). This apparent stability comes crashing down when Jinghui, coming home after another afternoon playing badminton and drinking with friends, finds out he's forgotten Pan's birthday, but she's already decided what she wants, and has the application for a divorce already prepared for his signature.

I'm not sure that the engine that makes this story work functions quite as well in Beijing as it does in Tokyo; a friend of Jinghui's mentions that having this whole family under the roof of one house is unusual while it has traditionally been the norm in Japan, and while one-child-per-family has been relaxed in recent years, there are a lot of siblings running around here. Allow it, though, because it lets the shock of Pan's bombshell spread quickly through a large group, getting especially funny material out of the broadest characters, as Jinghui, JIng, and Wanli have the most obviously hysterical reactions. Indeed, the general panic among that trio leads to a bunch of funny moments as co-writer/director/co-star Huang Lei uses their panic over how what they'd taken for granted may not necessarily be the case fuel some pretty good farce, including a private investigator and slapstick that reassures the audience that Jing and Wanli are probably on more solid ground than they think.

What makes movies like this more interesting than they'd be as just door-slamming comedies (which, make no mistake, are worthy films) is the surprisingly observant, occasionally satirical jabs they can take. <I>Family</I> is not particularly subtle here, but it's interesting to look at how the characters react underneath the wacky antics and dumb things said at family meetings. Youngest brother Cong shrugs the news off, not even annoyed that his big news has been overshadowed; a divorce isn't nearly the existential crisis for him that it is for his siblings, pointedly not causing doubts about his own relationship. Huang also seems somewhat pointed in how he uses the women in his cast - without much lecturing, he still is able to make sure the audience notices that Pan is taken for granted and her ambitions belittled, that despite Ding being addressed as "Professor" in her first scene, she's tending house in an apron for the rest of the movie while her husband is off on a business trip, or that Wanli not being the breadwinner in his house is considered shameful even if Jing is a brilliant accountant. It's intriguing to watch these tensions get much closer to the surface in the big family meeting, and consider how, in many ways, it circles back around to what got things started. Jinghui's dreams for retirement were considered, Pan's weren't, and she's running out of time to stand up for that.

The performances are in line with this; as Sun Li holds things down as the sensible woman who keeps the chaotic household running, Zhang Weixin spends much of the film lurking at the edges, giving a quiet performance that still hints a playful, creative inner life until the inevitable moment when she will get to lay Pan's feelings bare. Huang Lei and Kirsten Ren make a sweet, cheerful pair, their young lovers genuine in their empathy but still having a good sense of self. It's the guys who by and large get the broad, overtly comedic roles - although "Christina" Hai Qing has some of the funniest bits as Jing - with Lee Lichun kind of deceptively good as Jinghui: Though the characters talk about his lifetime of hard work and sacrifice that got them this nice house and stable life, he's often kind of a jerk in the present tense, and Lee does well to find ways to make his stunned reactions not entirely hollow and selfish, with just enough hints of a better self that he can sell actual regret down the line.

Doing this as a drama would have been tricky, but it can be even harder to do comedically, and that's where Haung Lei occasionally falls short of Yoji Yamada's original: The jokes are there, and they are by and large executed fairly well, but the comedic momentum doesn't quite build; the big slapstick moment toward the end comes out of nowhere as opposed to being the inevitably chaotic result of compounded misunderstandings and ever more desperate and absurd actions. It doesn't particularly help that, where Yamada's film had a playful score from Joe Hisaishi, the music here tends to be a quiet piano that highlights the more serious moments.

If the two versions were both readily available in America, the easy recommendation would be to skip this and find the first, but while this got close to a day-and-date release in theaters, the other is undistributed a year later. The remake retains a lot that made the original a favorite, so it's worth seeing if its shown up at a nearby theater that plays Chinese movies.

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originally posted: 05/24/17 01:52:57
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Directed by
  Lei Huang

Written by
  Lei Huang
  Bolei Zhang

  Lichun Lee
  Sun Li
  Lei Haung
  Christina Hai
  Weixin Zhang
  Xun Wang
  Kirsten Ren

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