Treasure Inn: Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung in Hong Kong Wuxia Comedy Film
Wong Jing’s swordplay comedy Treasure Inn hearkens back to an earlier, simpler Hong Kong Cinema time – namely the early nineties, when people watched movies on laserdisc and Netscape still meant something. Back then, comedy wuxias were big, mixing top stars and jiang hu stories with wacky hijinks, flowing costumes and energetic martial arts wirework.
Wong Jing produced more than a few such wuxias, including highlights (or maybe lowlights) Legend of the Liquid Sword, Holy Weapon and the Royal Tramp movies. Treasure Inn (Khach Diem Than Tai) handily belongs among those films, except it’s got mainland money. New-fangled CGI and a lack of superstars like Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung or Stephen Chow. The future was not kind to this genre.
Fear not, Wong Jing went quality with his cast, hiring Nic and Nick for the leads. They’re not Brigitte or Stephen but Hong Kong Film Award-winning duo Nicholas Tse (Ta Dinh Phong) and Nick Cheung are as good as you can get nowadays. Handsome Young Master (Tse) and wiseacre Brad (Cheung) are lowly cops who work in the courthouse kitchen and dream of being respected Gold Shield Constables. They get their chance when a mass murder occurs at the Zhang family estate, the perps escaping with the White Jade Goddess, a priceless statue of the goddess Guanyin. Young Master deduces that the killers were supreme martial artists using metal claws, poison needles, swift swordplay and a Deadful Melody-type instrument that sends out destructive sonic waves. Hold on – this movie has poison needles? Death by four-stringed lute? It’s enough to make an HK Cinema old-timer cry tears of joy.
Young Master’s smarts and Brad’s snarky commentary don’t do them much good, though. Lead investigator Captain Iron (Kenny Ho) guesses that the two might be conspirators and has them wrongfully imprisoned. They escape execution thanks to the intervention of swindling sisters Lady Fire Dragon (Huang Yi) and Lady Water Dragon (Charlene Choi), who regularly dupe the law for undeserved reward money. Romantic hijinks ensue, and after wasting ten minutes making gooey eyes. The quartet heads for the Treasure Inn. A desert inn run by the enigmatic Yue Linglong (Liu Yang). Given the illegal nature of the White Jade Goddess, the Treasure Inn is the only place where it can be sold, and if our four heroes (or two couples) catch the bad guys, they can clear their names and pocket a nifty reward. The problem: how can this group take down five martial arts masters?
Not to worry, this is a Wong Jing movie so everything is solved with instant deliberation and zero foreshadowing. Like most Wong Jing productions, Treasure Inn (phim vo thuat) is exceptionally slapdash. With convenient plot twists, heavy exposition and verbalized character bits thrown in whenever the movie needs them. This lack of polish should be a problem, but this is just Wong Jing being Wong Jing. Nobody expects complex narratives or seamless filmmaking from Wong – what makes his films work are wit and surprise, plus the quality of his cast and crew. When Wong’s hackneyed storytelling is highlighted by the unparalleled charisma of Chow Yun-Fat, or accompanied by gorgeous backlighting and Chingmy Yau in white billowing robes. It’s easy to buy in.
With that in mind, there’s some success here. Both Nic Tse and Nick Cheung perform gamely, showing that they can still have fun despite their award-winning pedigrees. As Young Master, Tse is all debonair attitude, using an arsenal of striking gazes to charm his legion of admirers. Tse’s performance is very self-amused, but it works, especially when paired with Cheung’s snarky sidekick.
Nick Cheung’s performance is familiar; dopey roles were his stock-in-trade before he became the intense Nick Cheung of Dante Lam film fame. Seeing Cheung as the screwy Brad now qualifies as nostalgia. And Huang Yi shows some comedy chops as his onscreen partner. Sadly, Charlene Choi impresses the least. Lady Water Dragon is the same whiny, girlish character she’s played many times before. And given Choi’s advancing age (she’s now 28), this screen persona has understandably lost luster. At this stage, the performance is a waste of Choi’s time.
Wong Jing’s gags are unsurprisingly hit-and-miss. But the mix of stars and performances compensates. Besides the lead four, mainland actor Tong Dawei is engaging as Wen Wenqie. A wandering doctor with hidden martial arts skills and an earnest attitude that makes him an audience favorite. Frequent “Jing Girl” Liu Yang does it all as Yue Linglong, combining mature sexiness with some dance and martial arts. The fighting is the fake stuff, as action director Corey Yuen has few cast members who can really perform their own martial arts.
However, the filmmakers compensate with active camerawork and solid choreography and editing. The fighting is easy to follow and never boring, and the variety of weapons and styles keeps things lively. It also helps that martial artists Yuen Tak and Philip Ng play two of the bad guys. As the lute-playing villainess, Pan Shuang-Shuang is easy on the eyes, which means she does her job.
The film’s visual effects aren’t that impressive. From Korean VFX house Kinomotive (the same guys who handled the atrocious Future-X Cops). The effects look like they were produced during an earlier decade. Still, it’s all tolerable, as the film itself is roughly made. Depending more on audience goodwill rather than a glossy production to get the job done. Treasure Inn is not a polished wuxia of the twenty-first century. But a wild and wacky nineties screwball fantasy. And given that classification we should simply be glad that the film isn’t annoying or interminable.
This is still a throwaway movie, as Wong Jing hasn’t changed the game or even the channel with his return to this genre. But it’s also a fun little throwback, reminding us of a bygone age when Hong Kong offered top-notch commercial cinema with unique, inimitable flair. Treasure Inn isn’t all that. But right now, it’s close enough.