The Chef, The Actor, The Scoundrel

Director He Guan on his latest box office splash

For his new film, The Chef, The Actor, The Scoundrel, director Hu Guan seeks to make a splash at the box office and stay true to his artistry. Time Out isn't convinced,


Of all the genres traditionally favoured by Chinese filmmakers – historical dramas, martial art epics, comedy – the latter is perhaps the least accessible to international audiences. Chinese comedies don’t tend to travel well, even the good ones such as Crazy Stone (Ning Hao, 2006) or Let the Bullets Fly (Jiang Wen, 2010), which grossed 730 million RMB at home but couldn’t get theatrical release outside Asia. Similarly, Lost in Thailand has sold more tickets in China than any other film but is performing dismally abroad. With its hallmarks of quick-fire dialogue, rapid cuts, absurdist satire and brash cinematography, contemporary Chinese comedy tends to leave outsiders baffled.


Writer-director Hu Guan’s new film, The Chef, The Actor, The Scoundrel, is likely to do little to broach the cross-cultural comedic abyss, despite the filmmaker’s intentions to break with the genre’s conventions. But audiences who are fond of his promising earlier efforts, Cow (2009) and Design of Death (2012), should be curious to see this chameleon filmmaker’s latest turn.


‘My original intention [with this film] was to throw myself into mass entertainment’, says Guan, 43, flatly (Hu is his given name). ‘But I don’t want to pander to the current situation [in Chinese comedy]. My attempt at mass entertainment is a film full of my own characteristics and signatures. I hope it will make money and be liked by the audience, but I refuse to sacrifice my style.’


Defining that style is difficult since Guan’s oeuvre is so varied. He initially made his directorial mark with Dirt (1994), a low-budget take on the underground Beijing rock scene that is often likened to Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards. Guan made Dirt after graduating from the Beijing Film Academy in 1991, and is justifiably lumped in with the Sixth Generation – the movement that emerged in Beijing post-1989 that is characterised by spontaneous, low-budget production values and affection for ethereal camerawork. Guan isn’t entirely comfortable with this. Indeed his next films, such as Cello in a Cab and Eyes of a Beauty, are cosy domestic dramas and distance his style from the raw Sixth Generation aesthetic. Between 2002-2009 he didn’t release any films at all, working in television dramas to make ends meet.


Lately he’s sought something a little more soulful, and in 2009 Cow propelled Guan back into the critical eye. The idea for Cow emerged after Guan worked on a television drama in Yimengshang, Shangdong province. He came across a local fable that he felt expressed something uniquely Chinese. It is one line in length – ‘During that time there was a peasant pulling a foreign cow over a foolish promise, and they both managed to survive’ – but Guan managed to expand it into a Golden Horse Award-winning screenplay. Design of Death, released last year, though flashier is similarly inventive and replete with the same gruff humour as Cow


The Chef, meanwhile, is set in familiar Chinese film surroundings: the Sino-Japanese war. It’s 1942 and a besieged Beijing is suffering a famine. Hungry and desperate, a scoundrel (Huang Bo) kidnaps two Japanese biochemical experts and takes them to a Japanese restaurant inhabited by an enigmatic opera actor (Zhang Hanyu). Much of the plot pivots on the question of what to do with the Japanese captives; the actor would kill them, the chef (Liu Ye) would release them. Just before havoc descends, it is discovered that the experts are carrying the cure for cholera, and the three greedy parties decide to steal the secret to sell to the authorities, sharing the spoils.


Guan makes it clear that his fable isn’t cashing in on anti-Japanese sentiment. ‘I just wanted to bring some joy with this film, it hasn’t got much to do with national wars of resistance or how the Chinese should confront the Japanese,’ he says. ‘It’s a story about what happens between the strong and the weak, good and evil. It’s a modern opera but not an anti-Japanese drama at all.’

Guan has never been one to forego the pursuit of profit for the sake of integrity, though. With the arty Dirt he himself stumped up the 12,500RMB fee for it to receive state studio affiliation and cinematic release (playing by the rules seemed distinctly un-Sixth Generation to Guan’s detractors). ‘I hope this film [The Chef] can make a profit,’ says Guan. ‘My television dramas all made money, but I’ve not yet been successful with a film. Cow didn’t lose money but didn’t make money either. It sounds utilitarian, but I just want to prove that I have the ability to be successful at the box office.’


How is he going to do that? ‘My definition of commercial films, as presented in The Chef, The Actor, The Scoundrel, is to make a film interesting, original and easy on the eye,’ Guan says, adding: ‘I do still wish to pass on ideas, feelings and inspiration, especially in the second half of the film, but there is less of that than in my earlier work.’


Additional reporting by Xia Keyu and Li Xinfei.


The Chef, The Actor, The Scoundrel is in cinemas around town from Friday 29 March.


The Chef, The Actor, The Scoundrel trailer