'Chef, Actor, Scoundrel' a Nutty, Delusive Historical Farce

Directed by: Guan hu; Runtime: 108 minutes
Grade: C

Few things can be more frustrating than hyper-exaggerated comedies that have their intentional silliness excused through the power of a plot's two-faced intentions: unwilling city folk trapped into adjusting to country living, slackers forced into positions of authority or immense wealth, or untrained civilians shoehorned into livewire military operations. Guan Hu's The Chef, The Actor, and The Scoundrel presents a twist on that last one, where a group of normal restaurant proprietors dealing with a situation outside their depth -- involving a hostage and a contained strain of a deadly mutated disease -- reveal that there's more to their coincidental run-in with a group of foreign scientists than meets the eye. There's an intriguing setup for both situational humor and wartime theatrics at the center of director Guan Hu's film, but its deliberate and flat outrageousness clashes with the sincere flickers of historical caper drama writhing underneath.

Set in the '40s during the Second Sino-Japanese conflict, The Chef, The Actor, and The Scoundrel operates around the period amid Japan's experiments in biological warfare against the Chinese, unleashing cholera through Beijing and keeping the battle pushed beyond the capital's walls as a result. The Japanese send a pair of scientists into the city with a vial of the disease for cure purposes, but they're intercepted by a cowboy-ish "scoundrel" (Huang Bo) who, after a blitz through the streets, leads their carriage to a restaurant in the city. In there, he's greeted by the chef (Liu Ye), his peculiar wife (Liang Jing), and an actor (Zhang Hanyu) who's taken up residence in the restaurant, where the three civilians struggle with how to handle the scientists: whether to kill them or release them based on responses from the respective sides of the war. However, another kink gets thrown in the situation when they discover the vial of cholera in the scientists' possession, turning their dilemma into something that could financially benefit the lot of them.

Director Guan Hu intentionally dials up the mannerisms of all four of these characters in The Chef, The Actor, and The Scoundrel, projecting their personalities to the rafters of the appealingly-constructed restaurant in ways that make the likes of kabuki comedy seem restrained in comparison. While their lavish makeup and stylized movements can be visually interesting, especially through Du Jie's immensely colorful cinematography and embellished angles (as well as a few callbacks to silent cinema), everything about the group's interactions rings false and without many flickers of effective physical or contextual comedy. Notably in the chef's wife: her grunts, wide-eyed, and toothy smile seem like they're engineered for amusement, but she comes across as obnoxiously overstated and frustrating to take for long periods. It's as if the direction begs the audience to embrace the idea that something's off about their antics, but that could've been done in far more tolerable and persuasive ways than the unfunny exaggerations that contaminate its beginning, which make the film seem as if it's on the rails towards all-out ludicrousness.

Turns out, indeed, nothing is as it appears in The Chef, The Actor, and the Scoundrel once the film's gears start to turn, navigated by an erratic script that revels in the self-satisfied ornateness of its machinations. The event's underlying motives instead hinge on resistance against the Japanese's methods of biological warfare (saying more beyond that would spoil its many twists), where, in the process, duplicity absolves the exaggerated comedy of most responsibility to level-headedness. If the humor falls flat or anything lacks credibility, it can merely be marked up to either the language disparity between the Chinese and Japanese or untrained performers caught in a manipulative situation outside their depths. When the story shifts toward solemn drama built around the virus plaguing China, it clashes with this awkward trickery and neglects to correspond with the rapidly-evolving leaps in the scenario, the stone-serious themes about the disease's enormity mixing with the stagy antics like oil in water.

There's a degree of playful suspense generated by the captive scientists and the vial of cholera that funnels towards a hectic final act in The Chef, The Actor, and the Scoundrel, driven by numerous twists about curing the disease and escalated action against the buzzing historical setting. Frustratingly, however, director Guan Hu also feels inclined to jumble the chronology of the events late in the film, unnecessarily rearranging scenes and flashbacks into enervating attempts at shock-value hinged on the survival of everyone involved. Moments of catharsis and melodrama get undermined by this unreliable viewpoint, with thoughts of disguises and double-dealings fresh on the mind as the contrived secrets hiding underneath the restaurant's floorboards -- and underneath the foursome's guises -- are unveiled at opportune times. It leaves a feeling of futility at the end, as if the energy poured into the ruse at the center of this befuddling story would've been more proficiently expended in other, less bombastic ways that'd achieve the same goal. When humor and genuineness are in such short supply, that's not a good thing.

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