THE MAGNIFICENT SCOUNDRELS: If PARASITE had been a Hong Kong movie from 1991

27 Jun

I’ve been going through my shelves and found a number of previously unseen Hong Kong movies from the 1990s on import DVDs purchased in Chinatown stores earlier this century. One of them was THE MAGNIFICENT SCOUNDRELS (1991), a comedy about small-time criminals trying to pull off a big-time scam and starring Stephen Chow, one of the biggest boxoffice stars in HK in the 1990s and early 2000s and best known in the U.S. for SHAOLIN SOCCER (2001) and KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004).

In THE MAGNIFICENT SCOUNDRELS, two different sets of con artists occupy a palatial modern seaside house in Hong Kong while the owners are temporarily absent. One group impersonates the family that lives there and they mistake Chow, caught in the act of trying to burglarize the place, for “Jack,” a financially well-off guest from the U.S. scheduled for a visit with the actual family. Chow’s accomplice lurks in the shadows, hiding from the others till she gets Chow’s instructions.

If I’d seen this movie before October of last year, I never would have noticed its similarity to Bong Joon Ho’s PARASITE, the Korean movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2019. Part social satire, part horror film, part class commentary, PARASITE, as I recall from last year’s screening, dealt with a family of grifters living in a slum apartment in Seoul who all ingratiate themselves, one at a time, without revealing their family connection, with a rich couple and their children, who live in a sprawling modern home on the outskirts of Seoul, and manage to all get hired in various positions, including two where they get the previous employees fired. When the rich family goes away on a trip, the grifters have the run of this huge, luxurious home and go a little wild. The film is played in a comic vein up to that point, but things take a dark, horrific turn when the grifters find out they haven’t been exactly alone in the house.

The only thing missing from the Chow film that would have made the comparison to PARASITE stronger is the presence of the actual owners of the house. I kept waiting for them to burst in and wonder who all these people making themselves at home were. The five con artists’ sputtering attempts to explain would have made for a much funnier and more appropriate finale than the one the filmmakers chose, which takes the characters away from the house to try to put over a bogus land deal with the gangster they all owe money to.

Prior to that, in the build-up to the takeover of the house, Wu Ma, playing a con man in debt to the gangster (Roy Cheung), is told that the family which owns the house will be away for a month. Wu gets the keys–presumably from a house employee with zero explanation of how he engineers this—and enters the house with two confederates in order to burglarize its antiques, but when he hears an answering machine message about a guest coming to invest in Hong Kong, he decides to recruit a fake wife (Tien Niu) and daughter (Amy Yip) to occupy the house before the guest arrives.

Meanwhile, Chow and his accomplice (Teresa Mo) break into the house one evening (using a telephone card on the lock, as if such a house wouldn’t have a high-tech alarm system) to steal from it after they came up with the lamebrained idea of luring the occupants away by buying sought-after concert tickets and placing them in the family’s mailbox. When they see the unused concert tickets on a coffee table they get alarmed and try to flee, but it’s at the exact moment when Wu Ma and his “wife” arrive and greet Chow as if he’s “Jack.” Chow plays along as best he can so he won’t be exposed as a burglar, while his accomplice hides wherever she can.

Wu Ma’s goal is to bilk the “guest” out of as much money as he can, while Chow, sensing easy prey in this family, sticks around to see what kind of score he can make. They all live the high life for a few days.

The highlight of the film comes when each side decides to blackmail the other by secretly photographing them in a compromising position. Chow’s plan is to seduce the owner’s buxom daughter and have his accomplice take a picture from the bathroom, while the “owner” plots to have his “daughter” seduce Chow while he, the “father,” is hiding in a closet with a camera.

As luck would have it, they confront each other with the photos at the same time.

If the whole movie had been as inventive as this part, what a great farce this could have been, especially if the real owners had returned while they were still there. However, to get to the good part, one has to wade through too many gags that are silly, crude, tasteless, violent, and occasionally gross-out.

And the subtitles don’t help:

A lot of Chow’s early comedies were hit-and-miss like that, but they tended to get more polished and disciplined as the decade progressed, especially when he moved into big-budget historical martial arts parodies like KING OF BEGGARS and ROYAL TRAMP from 1992 (both still awash, however, with toilet humor and penis jokes). Still, the actors in MAGNIFICENT SCOUNDRELS are game and manage to keep the whole thing engaging even when the gags are dumb. I was especially surprised at the comic talents of Teresa Mo, whom I only knew previously as Chow Yun-Fat’s straitlaced police girlfriend in John Woo’s HARD-BOILED (1992).

And Mo in HARD-BOILED:

And Amy Yip imbues one of her usual sexpot roles with several pratfalls.

In any event, it got me to thinking what PARASITE would have looked like if it had been made in Hong Kong as a farce in the 1990s with all the great actors who populated the HK movies of the time. I can see Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Brigitte Lin as the rich couple (or Andy Lau and Anita Mui) and Loletta Lee as their love-starved daughter.  Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung would have been too old to play the grifters’ adult children and too young to play the grifter parents, but they would have been great in such a movie had the roles of the grifters been reconfigured for them. Then we could have had all those great HK comic character actors of the time (Bill Tung, Richard Ng, Eric Tsang, Ng Man Tat, Nat Chan Pak-Cheung, Lydia Shum, etc.) in the other roles. We get a slight taste of it in the Jackie Chan/Anita Mui comedy, MIRACLES (aka MR. CANTON AND LADY ROSE (1989), one of the great Hong Kong farces, which features a number of con artists in the plot and co-stars Wu Ma as well, along with Richard Ng and Bill Tung. (It was a remake of Frank Capra’s POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, itself a 1961 remake of Capra’s own LADY FOR A DAY, 1933.)

 

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