Lawyer, Lawyer (1997)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-04-30
The Hong Kong film industry missed an important opportunity in the late 1990s and early in the first decade of this century. The extreme drop-off in box office revenues for movies from the Special Administrative Region could have been avoided if the producers had simply done something that was well within their power but for some reason wasn’t considered—or if considered was not implemented. With the advantage of hindsight, of course, it is clear what had to be done but in the everyday cut and thrust of getting movies made, distributed and exhibited while dealing with the encroachments of other media, the rise of digital piracy from just across the border and the general malaise following the takeover it just wasn’t an option. The obvious plan would have been to put either Karen Mok or Chingmy Yau (or both) into every movie released. There could have been plenty of special stock footage shot of the two actresses in front of blue screens for insertion into films in which they didn’t actually appear before the camera. However, looking at the filmographies of the two, they each could have done four times as many movies in the traditional way of showing up, getting into costume, delivering dialogue, shooting guns, blowing stuff up and always looking drop dead gorgeous while doing so.

“Lawyer, Lawyer” is one example of a movie that, while almost criminally underusing the talents of Karen Mok and Chingmy Yau, is made significantly better by their truncated presence. It is far from Stephen Chow’s best work although the combined comic genius of Chow, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks couldn’t have made this pasted together script consistently funny. “Lawyer, Lawyer” tries to be extremely silly possibly in the manner of the best of the Abrams/Proft comedies of the 1980s. But those movies succeeded, at least in part, by a non-stop flood of jokes and sight gags and the way that the characters in the movies reacted—or more importantly, didn’t react—to the chaos around them. Chow and company just don’t have enough material—it’s OK if a joke or three doesn’t work as long as there are ten thousand or so more funny bits on the way. The first eight minutes, for example, is essentially one long (much too long) urine/feces/anus joke that has a few inspired touches—the King of the Beggars thinking that Chow is a ghost because of his odd Western glasses for example, but it stops being funny long before it is over.

Introducing the Beggars guild and the bit with the glasses is also an indication of some of the structural problems with the film. The beggars are introduced, given a lot of screen time and then dropped until a quick and not very important appearance much later on. Chow’s glasses—which, while outrageous looking are not the strangest looking pair of spectacles on view—are no more than a funny prop which isn’t funny after the first time the audience sees them. Based on the reaction of the beggars to the glasses one would expect to see themes involving the countryside vs. the city (the action goes from Guangdong to Hong Kong) but the main conflict is between the newly arrived British colonizers and the Chinese—it is set in 1898. This makes sense in that the movie was released one year after the Takeover and ninety-nine years after the first takeover. The British are shown as both rule-bound and illogical, with no feeling for the people over whom they now (in 1898) rule, possibly like the new rulers from the PRC who arrived the year that “Lawyer, Lawyer” hit the screens.

Chingmy Yau plays Lotus Shui although the credits could have read “the part of the flower vase was taken by....” A puppeteer in a traveling show—a show with a plot on a par with this movie—she is an immediate target of both the predatory Chow and the bumbling Eric Kot. She is given very little to do while onscreen—not always a bad choice with this actress—but then disappears for most of the movie. Karen Mok’s role as Chow’s wife is frustratingly full of missed opportunities. She is basically along for the ride, serving as the secondary foil for Chow—Kot is the primary straight man. There is even a set up for a scene in which she would be forced to deliver the final summation of a capital case against Kot because Chow has gotten himself locked up for contempt, but after setting things into motion for her, the director simply decides to drop Chow back into the lead defense role. She does have one of the few genuinely funny lines when she tells a friend that while she was in England she didn’t study law, as had been the plan, she studied “fashion design”. It is anachronistically funny, of course, since if she had said she studied rocket science in 1898 it would have made as much sense, but also has a post modern quality, since (apparently) there is no term as such for fashion design in Cantonese—at least on the DVD she said it in English. This line was repeated often enough that it became tiresome but at least it was humorous the first time. Most of the jokes that were used over and over again were terrible on first appearance and got worse.

I assume the anti-Indian images—that they are smelly, duplicitous and don’t mind eating chicken pulled from someone’s rectum—made sense locally nine years ago but it certainly didn’t travel well.

Worth missing.
Reviewer Score: 3