Back in the Long Long Ago Times, I reviewed Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid. It was, at the time, was the highest grossing Chinese movie ever. Considering the director, this was no surprise. Why you could make a movie about cooking or the humble soccer match. Put Chow’s name on the title and it’s guaranteed to do blockbusters! Unless it’s, like, freaking CJ7.
Despite some early speculation that the lead role would go to Taiwanese singer Show Luo (who would eventually play the role of “Octopus”), the lead role went to Chao Deng. “Stephen explained that he had considered giving the lead role to Show, but ultimately chose Deng Chao due to his overwhelming popularity in Mainland China,” explains the Hong Kong celebrity news rag, Jayne Stars. “Stephen also has confidence in Deng Chao’s comedic talent, having observed his performances in the slapstick-style The Breakup Guru <分手大師>, and variety show Running Man: Chinese Edition <奔跑吧兄弟>.”
So what was it that Chow saw in this hot young comedian? Why choose him over Show Luo, who was in a Taiwanese boy band, has over 50 million followers on social media, and is the Mandarin voiceover artist for both Chicken Little and The Bee Movie? For that I went to Devil and Angel, a crime farce that debuted in China the previous year and, with a $98 million gross, was #21 in their domestic box office. (Beating out The Martian, Big Hero Six, and the first installment in the franchise that would smash box office records in 2017, Wolf Warrior.)
The Devil in the title is Mo Feili (played by Deng, who also directs). He seems to have some sort of weird comedy supernatural anime powers. It’s never made explicit why he can seem invulnerable at times, just that he is. Except when he’s not, such as when a hitman starts threatening him and he seems to be concerned. It’s always played for laughs. He also lives in poverty… technically. I only say that because his “slum” is so clean that an artisanal doughnut bakery selling expensive locally-sourced espressos would have no trouble finding a home there.
Devil also has a weird souped up car that’s part AMC Gremlin from Wayne’s World, part ghetto James Bond super-spy car. One of its doors slide outward with seat attached like an ejector seat, while the hatch can be opened to spew wave after wave of marbles to evade enemies. There’s a patch of grass growing on the roof. I don’t know what humor, precisely, is to be mined from having a mobile lawn on the roof. To me, it translates more as “quirky” rather than “dirt poor.”
The Angel in the title is… his dog. Contrary to what the title implies, the Angel is not Zha Xiaodao (played by Li Sun, Deng’s wife). This is a real Knight and Day situation (the 2010 movie… where apparently neither Tom Cruise nor Cameron Diaz is named “Knight” or “Day). Devil refers to Xiaodao as “Mole”, more because of how she seems like a shirking, fragile thing and not because he suspects her of passing information to enemy parties.
Xiaodao is the one with a character arc. Her family had high expectations of her. She is a sort of genius savant who can come to a solution when given direction. (A trait, incidentally, that I find immediately relatable. I can do things… but I am totally lost if I’m not given a goal that I have to achieve.) Instead… she ends up getting sucked into a cult and living with a sketchy fee collector. She’s also styling some nerd glasses, a Beatles mop top, and a bucktoothed grin (which is commented upon), because Deng wants to dial down his wife’s appearance from “supermodel attractive” to “adorkable.”
While she is slightly annoying… I will say Li Sun hits the mark on the “adorkable” side of things. Not just the looks, necessarily. She has outsized mannerisms: her mouth opens in a silly smile, and her eyes get wide and bug-eyed which are magnified by her thick glasses.
While the plot is is simple, I admit there’s some weird twists involved. It starts with Devil collecting $3.2 Million from a rich dude and deliver it to a cult leader. OK. So far so good. But then the rich guy steals his money back, so the cult leader has to hire Devil and Xiaodao to bring it back.
But the money is also wanted by the people of the slum, because the landlord is $3.2 million in debt? So the mission parameters change and the two decide that they need to prove that the rich guy got his money through illegal means. Aaaaaand… I guess it all works out because they throw the money from the building to everyone who is owed it. The end.
What really matters is that Devil and Xiaodao start the movie hating each other. And then by the end of the movie, Xiaodao confesses her love while Devil is asleep, assuming he can’t hear, only he was really awake and Xiaodao stammers and blushes like one of those schoolgirls in a really bad anime.
Also, Xiaodao is such a peaceful soul that she can help Devil, who has crippling insomnia, fall asleep. Only every time she tells people that she’s sleeping with him, they assume it’s a dirty sex thing. Oh my God! Sleeping with someone! So scandalous.
Is it weird that both Chao Deng and Li Sun are dressed like preteens during the entire movie? I would say… kinda. (Deng even dons a school uniform at one point, which I assume has got to be some sort of inside joke.)
One thing that stands out about this movie is how gorgeous the cinematography is. This is probably a detriment, incidentally, like how I mentioned how attractive the supposed “slums” look. The compositions are wide and spacious, with the characters often seen in cavernous warehouses and empty streets, as if Deng suffers from claustrophobia and can’t stand cramped spaces. Mo Feili might be sleeping on his floor, but that seems more like a personal preference: his living quarters seem to consist of several usable rooms.
Rather than settle for the grit and grime of street life, the movie uses color palette that features a lot of bright reds, greens, and yellows. It’s got something of a comic book look about it. This sums up my sentiment of the entire movie, actually. It feels like a manga adaptation of a source material that, for all I know, doesn’t exist.
Deng’s commitment to making this a somewhat family-friendly comedy means that there are roughly zero stakes. Wait… I take that back. There are typically stakes in most family friendly movies. Here, there are roughly zero consequences. In one scene, the bad guys kidnap a woman (Lele Dai) who has an unrequited crush on Devil. We next see fingers in some sort of bamboo torture device. It honestly doesn’t look that scary, what with it looking like chopsticks on strings. The woman refuses to talk, though, because she will never betray her love. The boss comes in and demands what to know what’s going on… and it turns out that the torture was the woman just watching someone’s fingers in a bamboo trap on one of the henchman’s smartphone screens.
Wah-wah! It’s a decent gag in isolation. However, most of the jokes are literally like this. No real stakes. Just people on both sides goofing off.
Though one gag that gets me every time is when they replace some of the nonathletic characters with stuntpeople. Head up: this isn’t a martial arts movie. Scenes that look like they’re going to lead to a big brawl, but they pull the punch at the last second. Mainly Devil either gives a scary look or Xiaodao does a Beautiful Mind think and puts an immediate end to hostilities. So when a genuine stunt comes from out of nowhere (usually in scenes that don’t even call for it), it’s genuinely delightful. Think of “Stephen Spielberg” doing backflips in Austin Powers: Goldmember.
For the most part though, the jokes are kinda hacky. They do the bit where Devil tells Xiaodao to guard the door, and if anyone steps through to clock him on the head with a bat. Of course, Xiaodao clocks Devil in the head, several times, and whining that he TOLD her to knock out anyone who walked through the door. It goes on for a little too long, and it wasn’t that funny of a joke to begin with. I can’t see this going over that well in China, either. I mean… they love Stephen Chow movies. I assume they know what good comedic timing looks like.
As for Chao Deng and why Stephen Chow wanted him to be the lead? Well… he’s OK. He does a lot of mugging, but for the most of the movie he plays a barely controlled ball of rage. It’s really more a showcase of Li Sun’s comedy chops and she does pretty well. (Also great: Lele Dai. I was pretty drawn to her everytime she was on screen, and it wasn’t just her crazy red hair. She goes all out when pulling overexaggerated facial expressions.)
Deng may have stepped back a little to focus more on being a director. (This movie was only his second ever director’s credit.) Though, to be fair, he did play a rather restrained role in The Mermaid as well Deng is probably a better dramatic actor than comedian, having won a Best Actor award in 2015 for his dramatic performance in The Dead End. Maybe that was what Chow was looking for.
Devil and Angel is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
NEXT: who has machine gun? Bear has machine gun! A Russian filmmaker tries to make his own Avengers film with Guardians.
NOTES: Different outlets refer to the lead actor as either “Chao Deng” and “Deng Chao”. As a result, I wasn’t sure which one was the family name. I went with “Deng”, because that’s what his Wikipedia article went with, but it could be wrong.
PRODUCTION NOTES: Made Overseas will be switching to once every two weeks, as will BnB Shame. Next week, BnB Shame comes out on Friday as usual, and then Made overseas on the Thursday after that.