Johnnie To along with his production company Milkyway Image’s long-awaited comeback to the big screen since the award-winning Trivisa <樹大招風> (2016) isn’t exactly what most fans would expect in the first place.
Which means those who are hoping to see the veteran director returning to his signature crime genre similar to what he did in his last directorial effort in Three <三人行> (2016) would be left disappointed. Instead, To and his frequent collaborator Wai Ka-Fai — who served as both co-producer and screenwriter — chose to make a mainstream-friendly Chasing Dream <我的拳王男友> that combines comedy, drama, romance and a dash of Unbeatable <激戰>-like MMA sports genre. Think of it as something Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai would do commercially during the early 2000s where their movie would team up Andy Lau or Louis Koo with Sammi Cheng, Kelly Lin or perhaps Cherrie Ying.
But in Chasing Dream <我的拳王男友>, To did not enlist his Milkyway regulars as usual and opt for fresh faces instead in the form of Jacky Heung (yes, the son of China Star Entertainment’s head honcho Charles Heung) and Wang Keru — credited as Keru Wang in this movie — of 2017’s Youth <芳华>.
The story behind the movie is a simple one: two young dreamers — one’s an MMA fighter (Jacky Heung’s Tiger) and the other is an aspiring singer (Keru Wang’s Cuckoo) who met each other in unpleasant circumstances. Apparently, Cuckoo owes a lot of money and Tiger is responsible to collect her debt. While she’s working multiple jobs from a ring girl to washing cars (in sexy clothes) and performing striptease in a club, Cuckoo is also determined to join the Chinese Idol-like singing competition Perfect Diva.
Although To was pretty much inactive during his three years’ hiatus, the veteran director is far from losing his creative touch in Chasing Dream <我的拳王男友>. Here, he directs the movie with an appropriately manic and youthful energy that made the nearly two-hour length pacey enough. This is particularly evident during the first half of the movie, where To has a field day making irreverent fun of Cuckoo’s frantic journey of joining numerous Perfect Diva‘s singing auditions across the city.
Speaking of Cuckoo, rising star Keru Wang is undoubtedly the scene-stealer of this movie with her overall lively and energetic performance. She also pairs well with Jacky Heung, whose neurotic acting style tends to get annoying at times. But Heung still displays enough boyish charm and rugged energy to his MMA fighter role of Tiger. The supporting cast is just as commendable, notably Wu Yitong and Ma Xiaohui who play as two of among Perfect Diva‘s celebrity judges and Kelly Yu’s hilariously deadpan turn as Hai Zhu, a highly determined rock-singer contestant who keeps showing up with severe injuries at each round.
No doubt To did a better job detailing Cuckoo’s both professional as well as personal struggle and journey of becoming a successful singer. But the other story involving Tiger’s dream of setting up his own restaurant and a subplot of Tiger’s estranged relationship with his boxing master Ma Qing (Shao Bing) isn’t nearly as successful as the former. Sure, it has its own moments such as To’s action direction during the gritty MMA action sequences. And yet, considering all the vibrant energy that To has invested earlier in the movie, the lesser second half right down to the never-give-up predictable ending feels more like it belongs to a generic commercial film straight out from the assembly line.
While Chasing Dream <我的拳王男友> is far from a potentially great comeback, To’s first movie in three years remains a reasonably entertaining effort.