Cat and Mouse Review: Lunar New Year comedy With Andy Lau and Cecilia Cheung

Lunar New Year comedy fans could get a kick out of Cat and Mouse, which features many prime signifiers of its genre: big stars, silly comedy, canned romance and a nifty period setting. It’s that last trait which proves especially endearing here. The ancient Chinese settings and costumes are welcome in this era of copycat horror flicks and urban romances.

Likewise the cross-dressing female lead (Cecilia Cheung as “Shining Mouse” Bai). And winning supporting actors (Anthony Wong and Cheung Tat-Ming), who bring life to the proceedings. In Cat and Mouse‘s case, some life really helps. Because director Gordon Chan (First Option, Beast Cops) sucks all other life out. Despite having enough to interest the devout HK Cinema fan, Chan’s dull direction renders the film only a minor diversion.

Andy Lau stars as famous swordsman Zhan, who’s the right-hand man to Judge Bao (Anthony Wong). Bao has been immortalized in many a Hong Kong production for his ability to solve crimes and dish out justice. However, he doesn’t really do any of that here. In Cat and Mouse (Lao Thu Ai Thuong Mieu), Bao and Zhan are bored out of their ancient Chinese minds because there’s simply nothing going on requiring their attention. Zhan’s worse off than Bao, since his sword has grown dissatisfied with its lack of use, and sometimes won’t even come out of its scabbard. There’s even a sequence where Zhan pleads, begs and pulls, and yet still the sword won’t come loose. If there’s supposed to be a sexual metaphor here, the filmmakers wisely don’t emphasize it.

With nothing to do, Zhan goes on an incognito vacation, whereupon he meets Shining Mouse Bai (Cecilia Cheung), who’s supposed to be a man. Sure, Bai is short, feminine and totally hot, but she’s got a fake-looking mustache; ergo, she must be a man. The two manage to find some common ground and become friends, but Zhan discovers a plot to assassinate Judge Bao, which leads to some supposed tension between warring factions. The Emperor (Cheung Tat-Ming) assigns Zhan to bring Bai over to their side in case the rebels make their presence known. And when she shows up they discover that he’s a she. Bai has also apparently fallen in love with Zhan, but she must be content to be his buddy. Zhan has already been promised to Yue Hua (Li Bing-Bing), so Bai can only pine from the sidelines. Then the bad guys show up.

The title of the film draws its inspiration from Bai’s title as the “Shining Mouse” and Zhan’s as the “Imperial Cat.” Their romance is supposed to be achingly impossible, and Cecilia Cheung makes the most of this plot device. Despite the fact that she’s supposed to be one tough cookie, Cheung convincingly registers heartbreak without moving a muscle on her celebrated face. Andy Lau is sufficiently charming as Zhan, and the two make a likable, albeit somewhat forced couple. Pairing the young with the old is something Hong Kong Cinema (phim hai Hong Kong) has done for years, but when it’s not explicitly acknowledged, the effect can be a little creepy.

But, whatever uncomfortable edge the stars bring to the film is negated by Anthony Wong and Cheung Tat-Ming, who both turn in fine supporting performances. Wong, in particular, adds to his library of engaging supporting turns, and lights up the screen whenever he appears. Cheung Tat-Ming is funny as the Emperor, and the other actors (Chapman To, Li Bing-Bing) round out the cast nicely. Of all this year’s Lunar New Year films, Cat and Mouse is likely the best cast and acted, as extreme histrionics and egregious mugging never come into play. Such restraint can only be appreciated.

However, that restraint extends perhaps a bit too far. The film possesses the usual wackiness that you’d expect from a New Year film. But director Gordon Chan seems content to direct with the urgency of a dozing barnyard animal. Everything is subdued here: the comedy, the action and the romance. The restraint is fitting for the film’s romance, as it allows the actors more space to perform. However, when the action and comedy are both subdued—as is the case here—some serious eye-glazing could occur. It’s like Chan expected the story to carry itself, which simply isn’t the case. There’s a lot to like about Cat and Mouse, but not enough to withstand Chan’s dull direction.

Still, the film’s bells and whistles do provide some enjoyment. The ancient Chinese setting and the costumes are both nostalgic and enjoyable in their own right. Likewise, there’s some fun in the the Imperial court shenanigans and the interplay between Andy Lau (Luu Duc Hoa) and Anthony Wong. The average HK Cinema fan will likely find more to enjoy here than in 2003’s other Lunar New Year offerings, as the minor details of Cat and Mouse seem primed to charm precisely those people. Pretty people? Check. Pretty costumes? Check. Fine setting? Check. Some swordplay and wacky flying martial arts? Check. All the requirements are here, but the pacing is glacial to distraction. Though it looked to have been more, this is ultimately only minor entertainment.

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