Film & TV

Spider-Man Fails, The New King of Comedy Conquers

Jingwen E. (right) in The New King of Comedy (Trailer image via YouTube)
In a tour de force, Stephen Chow reminds audiences of the true meaning of ‘marvel.’

Spider-Man: Far From Home, the latest Marvel glue-trap, is yet another sequel, but this one has a Pixar title and a Pixar plot about returning to sentimental origins — American high-school kids on the old-fashioned school trip abroad get disoriented in the newly destabilized Europe. Homesickness is a bland point, especially for the first Marvel release to follow that apocalypse-not sequel Endgame. Away from home, teenage Spider-Man Peter Parker (Tom Holland) acts out a personal foreign policy, courting MJ, the new biracial girl-next-door (Zendaya). But this plot device, in which Spidey realizes duty and hormones, feels gimmicky to anyone not suckered by the Marvel-Pixar contrivance that makes formula analogous to “home.” (Think of the desolation expressed in that Morrissey song “Home Is a Question Mark.”)

The idea of sequels is debased in Far From Home. But Stephen Chow’s The New King of Comedy validates that notion through affable genius. Marvel merely exploits its followers’ loyalty through repetitious plot turns and CGI hijinks. Far From Home’s F/X set-pieces merely bowdlerize the school-bus horror in Man of Steel and the crushing monster shockwave in Transformers: Dark of the Moon — landmarks that, for their poetic depth and aesthetic intensity, are not easily surpassed. But Chow respects his audience’s sophistication. Chow makes all of Far From Home’s gimmickry, and the ethnic exploitation of Into the Spider-Verse, not matter.

***

Stephen Chow has replaced Steven Spielberg as the world’s most humane, unifying filmmaker. The latest proof is The New King of Comedy, his immediately appealing filmmaking satire that reboots The King of Comedy, his 1999 Hong Kong action-flick spoof. But he does so while pointing out the audience’s conscious relationship to film-industry practices.

Chow reveals this through the longing of industry wannabes ready to debase themselves for a moment of keylight. From bit players to stand-ins, they become slapstick punching bags without a bit of cynicism. Their innocence recalls that moment when Spielberg’s  Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) refined the B-movie junk initiated by Star Wars but used superior craft that united audiences with the delight of stunts and routines they forgot they’d outgrown. (Later Indiana Jones would upgrade the experience.)

The New King of Comedy highlights that guilelessness when a man and a woman, both struggling actors, meet on set and introduce themselves: “I’m Young.” “I’m Dreamy.” The names tell us that the purity they bring to commercial exploitation is intact. They have Indy’s intrepid spirit — what Spielberg’s action series promoted as a virtue of Americanness — and Chow sees it in the working-folk faces that populate his films like mirror reflections of a mass audience that has not succumbed.

No Marvel movie demonstrates the wonderful expertise — the sense of filmmaking purity — associated with Chow’s and Spielberg’s charm and skills. Instead, Marvel has degraded film fans to the point where they consider popularity, box-office success, and consensus as goal and as pleasure. Viewers — and reviewers — who accept this craven attitude have forgotten how film culture once nurtured popular response, but the lower-case high-elation marvel found in The New King of Comedy achieves the emotional and aesthetic fulfillment that Marvel has despoiled.  (An Internet meme trashed Endgame’s pretend climax by joking, “We’ve successfully made billions of dollars releasing the same f***king movie 22 times.”)

Dreamy (played by Jingwen E.) carries the Stanislavski bible An Actor Prepares, and her resilience about becoming a film star conveys Chow’s good-natured, knock-about approach to film-industry reality. In this King of Comedy series (unrelated to Martin Scorsese’s 1982 fame-whore satire The King of Comedy, which defined cynicism), Chow observes the manufacturing of film product. He mocks industry formula through ironic titles for each production in which Dreamy toild, such as Snow White: Bloodbath in Chinatown or another that the harried soundstage director calls “My tribute to Zhang Che’s Aesthetic of Violence,” an unmistakable John Woo parody complete with pigeons fluttering amid the mayhem.

Chow connects Dreamy’s ambitions to action star Ma Ke (Baoqiang Wang), whose career vicissitudes — including brave, desperate self-humiliation — contrast the role of prima donna to that of novice. In Wang’s performance, vanity gives in to sacrifice — like a Method actor’s tribute to Donald O’Connor’s “Make ’Em Laugh” in Singin’ in the Rain. It’s an uncanny, delirious display of egotism and generosity. Dreamy’s parents pretend indifference to her various, hilarious mortifications, still they’re sympathetic. Dreamy’s theme song — “How Long Is the Road before I See My Dreams?” expresses longings also shared by her distracted boyfriend and his conventionally pretty roommate Pretty Mimi, who complains, “They’ll pollute my innocence” just before she jumps into the studio’s chauffeured car.

By the time Dreamy achieves success, Chow gives her the dignity of acting out her feelings and experience. A dual role provides an opportunity for self-expression, creativity, and emotional transparency that confirm even slapstick action filmmaking can be an art form.

Coming ten years after Chow’s original King of Comedy laid out the behind-the-scenes premise, this reboot does what Hollywood sequels and reboots don’t: The emotional extremes and formal complexity of Dreamy’s big moment is like nothing else I’ve seen since Mohsen Makhmalbaf drew parallels between mass audience desire and its exploitation in Salaam Cinema (1995), a masterpiece about film fans answering an open-casting call.

It’s a tour de force for Jingwin E. and for Chow.

 

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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