RSS Feed
YumCha! » Feature Articles

Provoking Thought and Laughter: Daniel Wu and The Heavenly Kings

Written by Sean Tierney Tell a Friend

Acting is acting, and singing is singing, and most of the time it's best if those who do the former avoid the latter, and vice versa. When Britney Spears made a movie, it was seen as a monstrous joke, one even more funny than the phrase "starring Madonna." If anyone had actually seen Mariah Carey's Glitter, they would no doubt have found it as ludicrous as those unfortunate few whose job it was to see and review it. Generally speaking, the idea that a singer has any business in front of a camera for anything other than a video (or drunken bedroom antics that become a downloadable embarrassment) is antithetical to the American pop audience. Singers sing, actors act; why mess up a good thing? Still, for reasons too many to comprehend, it happens. But its not the worst thing that can happen.

The only thing worse than a singer trying to act is an actor trying to sing. Why on earth a person whose job is to be the human equivalent of video tape ('record' a character, then erase it to make space for the next one, repeat ad nauseum, unless you're Winona Ryder) would think that they have any reason (or ability) to sing, much less be a musical entertainer, is beyond me. Disagree? Russell Crowe. Bruce Willis. Need I say more? I'm sure there are others, but I am consciously (and blissfully) ignorant of other examples. Just writing those names, though, leaves me cringing at the memories... awful.

In Hong Kong, however, its different. Here, its standard procedure to have these kinds of multitalented (!) stars. It's expected. Actors must sing; singers must act. So imagine a world in which Britney Spears made several movies a year. And hawked everything from toothpaste to brake fluid. At the same time, imagine Ashton Kutcher releasing a couple albums a year and appearing on MTV during the music video segments. Now imagine twenty or thirty other pop stars doing the exact same thing.

Hong Kong's Cantopop leviathan exercises a stifling chokehold on radio, CDs, karaoke, film, advertising, and, by extension, the audience. Imagine if people thought Mariah was a good actress and Russell was a great singer. You cannot understand the concept of overexposure until you live in a place where you see the Twins on an hourly basis. Then again, overexposure doesn't exist in Hong Kong; it would be considered standard marketing practice. Thanks (?) to vertical integration of both the production and dissemination of entertainment product, as well as considerable influence over (or ownership of) the media that cover (publicize) the entertainment, you have an industry whose delivery methods evoke that of a howitzer: Here's what we give you; that's what you can choose from. We'll give it to you in greater quantity than you can imagine, with a frequency that will make your head spin. When you're not listening to the music or watching the movies, you will read about it in our magazines. You cannot escape the faces, and voices. They are everywhere. I like Andy Lau, but I'm getting sick of seeing him try to sell me watches. In Hong Kong, Big Brother (Dai Lo?) need not watch us; we worship him at karaoke. If he wants us to watch singers act in movies, so be it. If he wants us to listen to actors sing, we obey. This dire situation is one thing that makes The Heavenly Kings such a refreshing film. The other is the identity of the director.

Pop singers becoming actors, or the reverse, is daunting enough. But what about when they become directors? Clint Eastwood came to the job with a long career history. But just imagine some of the other actors working today. Tom Cruise is terrifying in front of the camera during interviews; imagine that psyche being the guiding force behind an entire film, not just a character. Can you conceive of anything more frightening? Or more potentially disastrous?

Daniel Wu is an actor, a college graduate, and Hong Kong heartthrob supreme: I have witnessed, firsthand, his effect on a college-educated woman. She was literally trembling, and he was thirty feet away. We must now add film director to that list. In fact, add good film director. He has achieved no small triumph with his directorial debut. He has produced one of the wittiest, funniest, most entertaining Hong Kong films of the year. It's heady mixture of fact and fiction make it an acerbic triumph of everything I always hope film can be; entertaining, well-made, and thought-provoking.

The Heavenly Kings, whose Cantonese title evokes the collective name given to pop gods Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Leon Lai and Aaron Kwok, is a "mockumentary" about the manufactured boy band Alive (Daniel Wu, Andrew Lin, Terence Yin, Conroy Chan) and their meteoric rise to, well, the middle of Hong Kong's entertainment heap. In early 2005, Daniel Wu and his co-conspirators announced the formation of the new boy band Alive. The members were chosen not for their musical ability, but because they were already stars. Film stars. Or were married to film stars.

They were definitely not singers; they were so bad that their producer, a former member of LMF, wanted to slit his wrists. This, of course, didn't matter for two related reasons. One, because the whole scheme was just for the sake of the film. Second of all, because that's what everyone in Hong Kong's industry does. So carrying it off was a little easier than you might think; they weren't doing anything out of the ordinary, at least on the surface. Besides, the footage of them at karaoke and in the studio is side-splitting, embarrassing stuff.

The film is funny, entertaining, and at times self-consciously absurd. But at the same time it manages to drive home a very incisive point: the film parodies an industry that many feel has become a farce. The film is interspersed with interviews of some of the biggest stars (and casualties) of Hong Kong's Pop Industry. Jacky Cheung, Paul Wong, Miriam Yeung, Candy Lo and Nicolas Tse, among others, all tell frank stories of their experiences, good, bad, funny, and tragic. These interviews took place without the stars knowing what they were for; the director prepared a set of questions that each star was asked. Their answers are highly valuable for two reasons. They illustrate the true and often desolate reality of the industry, and they flawlessly (albeit unintentionally) mesh with the fictitious narrative. As a result, the absurdity and occasional tragedy of their real lived experiences amplify both the humorous and caustic nature of the film.

Yet all is not raspberries. To be frank, and fair, the very industry The Heavenly Kings lampoons is partially to credit for allowing Daniel Wu this opportunity. Would anyone in Hollywood allow Ashton Kutcher to get behind the camera? Doubtful. So the very fact that in Hong Kong it is possible for Daniel Wu to direct a film in some ways undermines his characterization of the industry.

The film also successfully manages to lampoon Hong Kong's music industry (and star machinery) while also evoking some of the great musical films of the last fifty years. While Wu might have issues with how he is treated as a star, it is plain that he still thoroughly enjoys his job. The Heavenly Kings gives us a heady mixture of This is Spinal Tap and A Hard Day's Night. It brings to mind the American TV show The Monkees as well as VH-1's Behind the Music. The animation sequences, which are hilarious and wonderfully executed, evoke both anime and Monty Python. The film is not indicting stars as much as stardom, particularly the Hong Kong variety. I am quite certain that Alive enjoyed the opportunity to perform in front of tens of thousands of people, no matter how poorly they did it; their glee is evident. But this happiness came with a price. Those most deserving of sympathy are the fans of the band. During the summer of 2005, while the ruse was being played, people in Hong Kong and Taiwan became unwitting fans of a joke. This unfortunate bit of chicanery, however, underscores the idea that the audience has been so thoroughly trained to accept what it is given that they gladly accepted this fabricated band. After all, it is what they are used to.

So if Alive cynically fooled their fans, they also gave them what they wanted. It might be a bit of wishful thinking to think that they did it in the hope of showing the film (and the band)'s audience that there is something better; there is no room for an alternative in Hong Kong. That said, Wu's use of soundtrack music by local musicians such as Hardpack, the punk band featuring former members of LMF, does at least expose viewers to some of the vibrant, viable music being made outside the scope of Cantopop.

The film succeeds because it manages to make us laugh and also forces us to think. It's the kind of filmmaking I wish more Hong Kong filmmakers would do. There's certainly no shortage of inspiration.

Published July 26, 2006

Mentioned Products

  • Region & Language: No Region Selected - English
  • *Reference Currency: No Reference Currency
 Change Preferences 
Please enable cookies in your browser to experience all the features of our site, including the ability to make a purchase.
Cookie Preferences Close

We use data cookies to store your online preferences and collect information. You can use this interface to enable or disable sets of cookies with varying functions.

These cookies are required to use core website features and are automatically enabled when you use the site. They also enable use of the Shopping Cart and Checkout processes, assist in regulatory and security issues, measure traffic and visits, and retrieve order information for affiliate commissions. We use the information collected to evaluate and improve the performance of your shopping experience.
These cookies are used to deliver advertisements that are more relevant to you and your interests. Marketing Cookies are placed by third-party providers with our permission, and any information collected may be shared with other organizations such as publishers or advertisers.
These cookies enable us to provide better services based on how users use our website, and allow us to improve our features to deliver better user experience. Information collected is aggregated and anonymous.