There are good films and there are bad films, and then there’s City Under Siege. Benny Chan’s action/sci-fi/whatever thriller is a prime example of the age-old clash between ideas and imagination. Basically, a filmmaker has lots of ideas but lacks the imagination to pull them off convincingly or even competently. Chan, who serves as producer/director/co-screenwriter, is obviously the driving force behind City Under Siege. And he fumbles the ball so spectacularly that entertainment is an unavoidable byproduct. Is City Under Siege a good movie? Absolutely not. But it’s got giggles, that’s for sure.
Aaron Kwok stars as Sunny, a professional clown who dreams of being a star dagger thrower and generally acts like a complete tool. Sunny is an optimistic, childish and totally daft dope who’s routinely ridiculed by the circus’ other performers. A ridiculously evil bunch led by Cheung (Collin Chou). Given Sunny’s annoying behavior, one wonders how he’s managed to reach adulthood without earning regular beatings from normal folks who’ve had enough of his aggravating shenanigans. Kwok plays Sunny in a cute, innocent and borderline creepy manner – an embarrassing acting mode that Kwok should have phased out of his repertoire in the early nineties. If City Under Siege (Toan Thanh Gioi Bi) shows us anything, it’s that Kwok still lacks restraint as an actor.
Back to the plot: the film opens with a Mainland-pandering flashback depicting inhumane experiments by the Japanese army, who use an experimental gas to turn people into super strong mutants with a predilection for violence. Years later, Sunny and Cheung’s band of evil circus performers happen across the buried lab in Malaysia and bust it open thinking that it contains gold.
Bingo, they get a faceful of gas, sending them on the road to veins-bursting mutation. Everyone gets buff out and loses their hair. Such that they end up looking like refugees from a Rick Baker convention. Sunny is the lone lucky one, as he possesses antibodies that allow him to ingest the gas without turning ugly. All the mutants end up back in Hong Kong, with Cheung’s gang pillaging and ravaging because they’re greedy and evil, and Sunny acting stupid because, well, he’s stupid. Eventually they clash, meaning it’s time for a mutant-vs-mutant throwdown that could destroy half the city.
That’s when Sunny and Cheung fight with – get ready for this – flying daggers! Yes, everyone is super-strong and can stop bullets with their flesh. And the weapons of choice are circus-approved throwing daggers. Why Benny Chan decided that mutants should battle it out with blades is never fully explained. Though it does allow for pseudo-meaningful dialogue about how every flying dagger needs a target, ergo a person should run their life like a dagger and aim for their own target. Or something.
There’s also lip service about how one should be a good person and not a greedy one. A theme brought out by Angel (Shu Qi), a reporter who learns not to be a cynical exploiter of dopey mutants when she’s replaced at her job by this year’s model (Chrissie Chau, in a barely there role). Angel also learns to care for Sunny, which is only believable because he’s hot. And not because he has a remotely tolerable personality.
Rounding out the film’s major themes is love. Suen (Wu Jing or Ngo Kinh) and Ching (Zhang Jingchu) are two mainland cops specializing in mutant crimes. And when not mutant busting they double as lovers. Suen sometimes cares more for mutant hunting than his girlfriend. Despite the fact that they’re suppose to marry in less than a month. Duh, obviously something will happen that screws up their happily ever after.
Meanwhile, evil mutant Cheung’s thirst for material goods hitches a snag when he reveals his long-held ardor for Angel. And he even delivers his own soliloquy about how lonely he really is. As Cheung, Collin Chou gives Aaron Kwok some stiff competition for that overacting award, but he gets extra points for getting all misty while looking like the Toxic Avenger. This stuff obviously isn’t affecting. But somehow Benny Chan seems to think it is. Which ends up making City Under Siege even more ridiculously hilarious.
Basically, City Under Siege is a complete mess. The lead character is insipid and uninteresting. The storyline is poorly developed, and the emotional subplots are laughable and unconvincing. As a narrative film, City Under Siege gets an F for “fail”. And packs in far too many concepts and storylines, ultimately ending up as an unwieldy mess. However, its over-the-top crappiness ends up making it somewhat special. This is a strange, strange movie that’s obviously not quality. But it’s so bizarre and ill-conceived that entertainment is possible. Besides the mystifying ideas and crazy overacting.
There’s also Wu Jing, who’s so over-the-top awesome in the early going that he looks like he’s gunning for his own spinoff film. Wu’s coolness takes a hit when he’s require to cry. But before that he’s the film’s badass supreme. Also, Shu Qi and Zhang Jingchu aren’t bad in their roles, and some of the kung-fu action is decent. There’s also Aaron Kwok and his crazy overacting – and hey, if entertainment has a name, it’s Aaron Kwok.
The star, however, is Benny Chan. Good with action, clumsy with emotions, Chan pretty much shows his limitations with City Under Siege. Using his hitmaking power to announce himself as the action version of Jingle Ma. Like Ma, Chan is not an auteur, so why these guys have to write, produce and direct is a mystery that can’t be explained. At least the action film (phim hanh dong di nhan) does possess one killer idea: Mainland-approved mutant busters Suen and Ching use a combination of kick-ass kung-fu and acupuncture needles to subdue mutants who are obviously their physical superiors.
Seeing Wu Jing and Zhang Jingchu athletically take on mutants while stabbing them here and there with needles is fun stuff. And Chan could have easily used that concept to craft a modern update on the supernatural kung-fu costume films of the eighties and nineties. However, with City Under Siege, Chan just had to mix in crappy make-up effects, needless dagger throwing. Evil circus performers, emoting mutants. And an overacting Aaron Kwok. For God’s sake, why? Probably because Benny Chan wanted it that way. People who bankroll Benny Chan’s movies: maybe not everything he wants is a good thing.