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In 2002 internationally respected auteur Wong Kar-wai teamed up with Jeff Lau for Chinese Odyssey 2002. This time Wong took the producer reins while Lau stepped behind the camera. Together they crafted a frantic comedy of errors that cocks a respectful snook at the martial arts fantasy genre.

In the mythical ancient past, Princess Ping On (Fay Wong) lives in the royal palace of the Forbidden City, drowning in boredom and circumstance. She’s forever trying to escape out to the real world beyond the regal expectations and marriages deigned for her. She wants real, true love to find and experience her.  Her brother, the Emperor Zheng De (Chen Chang), is just as caged, less flighty and easily led.

Chinese Odyssey 2002
So before a flying dagger can hit its mark the frenetic opening sequence not only sets the scene but sees the siblings make an inspired (or not?) break for it. Ping On gets out and quickly dresses as a man to blend in with the hoi polloi, to experience the grit of real life.

Talking of which, before a crouching tiger can loose its spring, we meet the madcap Lung (Tony Leung) as he returns to his sister impulsive Phoenix (Vicki Zhao). The beguiling Phoenix just about runs a local diner whilst her bully-from-the-past brother has been a-wandering the lands. Both are kindred spirits looking for a romantic soul mate and make humorous sibling couple. Of course, Ping On enters their lives and soon a whole lot of friendly bonding gets going. Lung finds a new best friend, Ping On gets a dose of real living, and, inevitably, falls in love Lung. Lung gets confused and his sister falls in love with the male Ping On.

Chinese Odyssey 2002
However, when a mystic reads the princess’ future and the palace guards catch up with her, hilariously un-incognito, she must away again, breaking Phoenix’s heart, leaving Lung halved and with both believing she is actually the emperor.

The pace never slackens as the real Emperor then makes a break for normality by escaping the palace and also posing as a mere pleb. Naturally, he falls for Phoenix and starts to woo her, wanting to also be loved on his own merits, and not for his wealth and status. Phoenix begins to fall in love with the real Emperor, which obviously poses her another dilemma as her heart is at first still longing for Ping On, who she still thinks is the emperor. Even though he, or she, rather, is actually the princess and is in love with Phoenix’s brother and so will never return Phoenix’s sentiments.

[deep breath]

Lung, in the meantime, has now teamed up with his bestest buddy again, Ping On still in disguise, who he’s feeling strangely more and more attracted to. Ping On, of course, is finding it hard to hide her feelings for Lung, but as a man can’t begin to express these. Will the quartet ever find their true loves and a happy ending?

Lau’s direction keeps the whole affair moving along at a cracking pace and the energy is infectious, never once leaving you stranded or tired. He’s helped out enormously by full-on performances from the cast who fully embrace their characters and the comedy of their situations. Tony Leung, in particular, is thoroughly engaging as his clown with a heart neatly pays homage to and undercuts his more serious warrior roles. Even Rebecca Pan gets in on the act lending a measured and icy gravitas with her impressive back catalogue, but whilst not letting things get too serious.

And therein lies CO2’s real comedic charm—lampooning more serious and established films. While there is ages-old humour in the very Shakespearean identity and gender-swapping, which leads to earnest questions about societal roles that echoes Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing, the film’s other raison d’être is as a committed martial arts spoof flick. With a regular swishing of swords and limbs throughout, there’s ample opportunity for Lau and Wong to pop the pomp of likes of Crouching Tiger and its cubs. The fights may not be as impressive as the wire-fu greats, but they’re frenetic and effective enough when they get going; or wonderfully clunky and clumsy instead. Throughout Lau’s reverential and satirical edge holds firm. This works brilliantly when he even takes on the games industry by poking fun at the supernatural status accorded to outlandishly named fight moves. And these fighters can ‘power-up’ for them as well…

Chinese Odyssey 2002
Combine this with the comedy of errors, throw a light-hearted take on the mysticism of divining one’s true destiny, and you have a pleasingly light film that appeals equally to fans of the genre and lovers of inventive comedy. It should come as no surprise that Lau, who scripted as well as directed, picked up the 2003 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Award for Best Film.

In order to pull off a successful and respectful lampoon, Lau deftly mimics some of the shots and framings from the martial arts genre with some stunning use of natural and interior locations. The frantic editing gives way to plenty of beautiful scenes and here CO2’s benefits from a decent enough 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer so much of Lau’s direction makes it to the widescreen as intended. However, as with other recent Tartan releases of Wong Kar-wai’s past projects the picture quality is patchy. Although not perfect, it’s not as continually poor as, say, the older As Tears Go By. On regular occasions the old black spotting appears in the pale and near white tones and a fair amount of white flecking spikes your eyes in the off-blacks. This is a modern film so surely this and the ensuing frustration and disappointment were avoidable. At times there’s even some moments of black threading running down the screen.

Chinese Odyssey 2002
The disc is released with Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks as well as a DD 2.0 Stereo one. Unfortunately the review disc just seemed to come with the latter, so there isn’t much to sing about here. It’s efficient enough but plain. While never intending to go in for audio pyrotechnics, it brings a certain flatness to a film that’s otherwise anything else. With a swirling pace, a decent 5.1 track would surely enhance the experience. There are optional English subtitles to accompany the Mandarin soundtrack.

There were no extras on the review disc save for a small selection of Tartan release trailers: 2046, My Architect, Super Size Me and In the Mood for Love. Film notes and an original theatrical trailer are listed to feature on the released edition.

Chinese Odyssey 2002
Engaging and light fare, CO2 succeeds in all its efforts at playing the honourable pastiche. While even taking in the likes of Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time and Chungking Express, CO2 also remains it’s own film. A brisk and inventive comedy, it’s that’s well worth more than the one look and sits comfortably alongside its more serious Asian cousins. If that sounds like your cup of green tea, Chinese Odyssey 20O2 won’t disappoint.