Running Out of Karma: My Lucky Star

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.

In 2009, Zhang Ziyi starred and produced the ultra-manic-pixie Sophie’s Revenge, a romcom in which she plays a cartoonist that nonetheless lacks a tenth of the nuance or emotional maturity of Caroline in the City. It was a big hit.

In 2013, she made a prequel, I guess, in which she reprises her role as Sophie. There’s almost no connection to the previous film, the prequel status I guess comes from the fact that she’s not yet a successful cartoonist, instead working at a travel agency. Also, instead of strictly a romantic comedy, Sophie finds herself, on vacation in Macao, getting accidentally mixed up in a James Bond film (a la Romancing the Stone, the story she finds herself in is eerily similar to the comics she’s been writing, a hint of a deeper level of mental illness to Sophie the film never bothers to explore, instead it just lies there as a flat meta-joke and scene transition device, where the characters transform into drawn versions of themselves, a technique that felt stale 20 years ago in the first Young and Dangerous film). She meets a debonair spy, mangles his operation and gets targeted by the film’s villain, who, in the film’s weirdest twist, is played by none other than Hou Hsiao-hsien’s favorite screen avatar, Jack Kao. The director is Dennie Gordon, a veteran of television and director of the David Spade classic Joe Dirt and the Amanda Bynes epic What a Girl Wants.

The spy story is rote and the comedy is both lame and boring, but the film, like Sophie’s Revenge, is weirdly fascinating. Zhang, a brilliant dramatic actress and by all nonsense one of the more beautiful movie stars in the world, seems pathologically intent on goofing up her persona, ratcheting the gawkiness to levels that, in the hands of a more skilled director, almost remind one of Jerry Lewis. But given the inchoate swirl of digital fakery that surrounds her (the first film, though set in Bejing, weirdly had almost no sense of place; this one, spread through the Chinese speaking world in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macao, with a brief coda in Europe, is even less rooted in any kind of recognizable place), the main effect we get is not of a clumsy and awkward girl, but of an actress who really, really wants you to think she’s clumsy and awkward.

This kind of flagellation of the beautiful actress is a constant trope in the romantic comedy genre, of course, but Zhang takes it to uncomfortable levels (like everything else in the film, it isn’t committed enough to make something truly obscene or transgressive, just kind of gross). She gets a dance sequence, which she of course clumsies up before being rescued at the last minute (by her man, who takes over a drum set and gives her a driving beat, which is, um, a metaphor I guess). To be fair, the dance is both choreographed and shot better than Zhang’s dance in Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha, but that’s not saying much. Why only Zhang Yimou has been able to capture Zhang’s gracefulness as a dancer on film remains a mystery to me.

The man saves her and they continue their mission. The villain, Kao’s boss, runs out to be a woman, naturally enough. She’s got a black widow tattoo on her neck, and she has four dead husbands. Of course, she’s also in love with the hero, and his betrayal of her is what sets the plot in motion (she’s heartbroken and so wants to blow up Bermuda — seriously) and ultimately proves to be her undoing. Sophie tags along and constantly screws up their operations until the climax, when her determination and spunk, well, don’t exactly win the day, but lead her to be in the right place at the time when her brainless awkwardness accidentally causes something good to happen while the hero wins the day. Then she goes home, alone, because the man rejects her (he’s a spy, just doing his job).

Back in Beijing she uses her new-found confidence to quit the job she’s terrible at anyway and gets a dog. And somehow she’s in Italy drawing pictures of people on the street. And then her prince comes and rescues her, for some reason, and they live happily ever after. Except they don’t I guess because this is a prequel and there’s no relation between how this one ends and the Sophie we know from the other film so what the hell.

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