One of the most popular genres in Chinese language cinema in the ’80s and ’90s was mo lei tau — nonsense movies. The American equivalent, more or less, would be “Airplane”; Stephen Chow — whose “Shaolin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle” even caught on in America — is the style's biggest star.
Since the central aesthetic is “anything goes,” perhaps we shouldn't be too shocked that Guan Hu's “The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel” is a mo lei tau about a cholera epidemic. But it's also something else, and it's hard to describe without a tiny bit of spoilage (limited to the first 20 minutes).
It opens like a Spaghetti Western, with a cowboy-style thief (Huang Bo) holding up a stagecoach. He takes two Japanese hostages (Takashima Shinichi, Otsuka Masanobu) and heads for an inn run by a cook (Liu Ye), his mute wife (Liang Jing), and a Chinese opera performer (Zhang Hanyu). Somewhere along the way, we discover that this is not the Old West or its Chinese equivalent; it's Beijing in 1941, occupied by the Japanese and in the grips of a massive cholera outbreak. The epidemic may or may not have been engineered by Japan's notorious, historically real Unit 731, which killed thousands of prisoners, primarily Chinese, while researching biological and chemical warfare during World War II.
Despite the harsh historical subject, the first 20 minutes are basically mo lei tau on crack — with the most extreme overacting and a pace that almost wears the viewer out. If you get that far in without your head exploding, you discover that it's not the stars who are overacting, but their characters. The film “rewinds” to a dead-serious black-and-white flashback — “5 Days Earlier” — where we learn that the thief and the three innkeepers are not thieves or innkeepers; they are engaged in a secretive scheme that depends on them wearing out their two-prisoner audience.
The insanity slows down just a little, particularly when unexpected intruders arrive; and further explanatory flashbacks even bring a touch of genuine emotion to the proceedings. (Photos during the final credits allege to represent the real historical figures, with notes on what became of them. Perhaps such people did exist; or perhaps it's yet another layer of illusion created by the filmmakers.)
The movie is beautifully shot and tightly edited, but definitely not for anyone put off by cinematic insanity.
The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel (Well Go USA Entertainment, Blu-ray, $29.98; DVD, $24.98)
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).