It's the age-old tale: boy meets girl, boy swaps bodies with girl, boy quarrels with girl, one of them enters a mixed martial arts competition. In the meantime, each makes a fool of themselves dealing with their new gender, before ending up falling in love—just in time for them to be returned to their own bodies. The narrative may have the hallmarks of cliché, but novelty is hardly the reason why people go to the cinema.
In the case of Never Say Die, the third film from comedy troupe Kaixin Mahua, the bizarre plot only promises to entertain with its tale of star reporter Ma Xiao (Ma Li) and underdog MMA fighter Aidisheng (Allen Ai). The boxer has been accused of bribing his opponent in a previous match, but switches bodies with the reporter after being struck by lightning. Despite starting out as sworn enemies, the two decide to work together to win the championship. Along the way, the audience is treated to some surprisingly good fighting sequences (the Chinese title translates to "The Shy Iron Fist"), nonstop jokes, romance, and a feel-good story.
The film is the third highest-grossing film of the year, with more than 2 billion RMB currently in box office, but when it comes to mass market comedy on the Chinese mainland, few are more experienced than Kaixin Mahua.
Originally a theatrical company established in 2003 with a mission statement of "entertain the people," Mahua has traveled around over 40 cities across China to put on over 2,000 shows—on average 10 a month—since then. Targeting the Spring Festival holiday entertainment market, Mahua produced original comedies, then later musicals, and now has more than two dozen successful plays in its repertoire.
The 2015 hit Goodbye, Mr. Loser was Mahua's first attempt at adapting its scripts for the big screen; the film became a sleeper hit with a box office of 1.4 billion RMB. In 2016, Mahua released its second film, Mr. Donkey, a sharp, grimly realistic black comedy set during the Republic of China, which was considered by many to be the "movie of the year" with an 8.3 rating on Douban.com. Despite acclaim, though, the film's success was relatively modest at the box office, earning only 172 million RMB, about an eighth of Mahua's first comedy.
The new film's classic, Freaky Friday-style body swapping plot may have been an attempt to win back a larger, mainstream audience, after the mature critique of corruption and the oppression of women in society that Mr. Donkey offered. Indeed, much like the time-traveling plot of Mr. Loser, many of Never Say Die's jokes are based on gender-bending tropes, particularly the "tomboy" and "effeminate man" stereotypes so common in Chinese cinema. Lead actress Ma Li, who has a rich experience on the Mahua theater stage, has been typecast for such a role, having previously played a boyish teenage girl in Mr. Loser and a transgender woman in the play The Count of Mount Wulong.
Many female roles in Chinese comedies get their punchlines from jokes about their perceived lack of traditional feminine qualities and looks. In 2015, controversy broke out over a CCTV New Year's Gala comedy sketch featuring a "goddess" and a nühanzi (literally "manly woman") side-by-side; many pointed out that the so-called "manly woman" was just an ordinary woman without a supermodel's body. But after accusations of sexism, Jia Ling, who played the "manly woman," expressed concern that such criticism may further block the already narrow career paths of female comedians.
At the core of Never Say Die is a polished plots, characters, and dialogue guaranteed to tickle your funny bone—although some of the jokes may go over non-Chinese heads. With influences that range from classic Hollywood and Hong Kong comedies to Taiwanese director Kevin Chu Yen-ping's Shaolin Popey comedy kung fu series, local audiences will instantly recognize the pop culture references, such as the melodramatic theme tune to 1983 wuxia TV series Legend of the Condor Heroes, which previously served as a major element in Hong Kong actor-director Stephen Chow's 2016 The Mermaid.
Meanwhile, some of the funniest scenes in the films are wulitou (无厘头) style, a term from Cantonese meaning "at random, without a reason, or confusing." It refers to a grassroots comedy style featuring ridiculous, illogical, and seemingly-irrelevant acts, popularized by Chow in the early 1990s.
However, Never Say Die is still very much an original work; it invokes certain formulas of storytelling, but manages to engage the audience with fresh material. Its box-office success may in fact serve as the proof that a new Chinese comedy genre has been born.
"High Ambitions" is a story from our issue, "Cloud Country". To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.
Article by Liu Jue