You know there's magic in the air when Shaw and TVB come together to create comical mayhem to usher in the Lunar New Year through cinema, and the opening shot would put any Hong Kong cinephile to cloud nine with its extremely nostalgic take on one of Hong Kong's most successful comedy film, House of 72 Tenants, from which this updated version took its titular moniker from.
It's quite the rarity these days to see the Shaw Bros logo in full screen glory, and then unveiling before your very eyes the look and feel of the 70s film it pays homage to, right down to familiar characters such as the Shanghainese lady now played by the late Lydia Sum's daughter. Then there's the deliberate colour strains that gave a throwback to an era of film now gone, coupled with some really gorgeous sets and costumes now adorned on contemporary TVB stars such as Lum Ka Tung and Charmaine Sheh who plays the mean landlady out to exploit her tenants through unscrupulous rising rentals.
This fantastic opening piece sets the stage from which the film fast forwards its narrative, and best kept under wraps as its plot development in the last act, and finale ties everything up rather nicely in an non fussy manner. Simply put, its core revolves around the trio of good friends Pinky (Fala Chen, then Anita Yuen as the older version of the same character), Ha Kung (Justin Lo, then Eric Tsang who also co-directed) and Shek Kin (Raymond Lam, then Jacky Cheung), the latter who loses in a bet, thereby paving the way for the other two to get married.
Fast forward some 30 years, and the rivals now are battling each other on the economic front, with each of their mobile phone shops opened opposite of the other's, and war is on the streets of Mongkok to get customers to buy through a slew of comical marketing gimmicks. The feud also extends to the next generation, who inevitably finds it difficult not to fall in love, paving the way for some Romeo and Juliet complications with the objections of their fathers.
Comedy wise, expect laughter to rip from the appearance of the multitude of characters who make up the titular 72 characters, most of whom are now shopkeepers in the Mongkok district against land property developers who are raising rent by three times to force them out from the area. Then there are the mo-lei-tau (nonsensical) jokes, coupled with song and dance, word play, spoofs of popular films (Ip Man takes the cake here since two movies this season has that iconic battle scene made fun of), and a number of self-deprecating jokes which broke the 4th wall.
Topical issues also get incorporated into the narrative, such as the unsolved acid throwing incidents in Mongkok (which got weaved quite nicely into the story), and what I thought was a boot-licking attempt at the Chinese authorities in painting an obvious Chinese businessman in extremely good light as saviour of sorts to the tenants. But the icing on the cake, turned out to be the casting of Eric Tsang himself, Jacky Cheung and Anita Yuen in leading roles, all three of whom had been sorely missed on the big screen save for Tsang's occasional cameos in other recent films. They still show they got what it takes to lead a group of relative newbies in an ensemble film of such scale.
My only gripe about the film, again is how the Mandarin dubbing had fallen way short of the cheeky jokes, and can never take the place of the rich language that is Cantonese. With Hong Kong comedies, there's always a certain significant degree of word play and puns that get lost in translation, made worse by English subtitles which just couldn't keep up (look out for that atrocious street-interviews scene). I think readers will know I'm a proponent for the original language track to be used in whatever movies, and this is one more example of how a comedy can have its jokes torpedoed on its own face from a language constraint over here.
No doubt some Cantonese was allowed to slip through, and for one of the tongue in cheek songs too, but one can imagine the genuine rip-roaring fun that everyone in the audience can enjoy, as demonstrated by the very keen response each time the characters sing or engage in repertoire in their native tongue. Sigh.
Nonetheless this is still an enjoyable film to usher in the Lunar New Year, and probably one great for the family too, with its tremendous star power fit for just plonking oneself on a seat and counting the number of cameo appearances both young and old that come on screen.