In "Life Is Cheap . . . but toilet paper is expensive" (Nuart) writer-director Wayne Wang's ambitions exceed his abilities.
It would seem that he was overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to catch on film the vibrancy and complexity of Hong Kong--no easy task, of course--and tries for a kind of jaunty film noir spoof. The result is arch and precious.
There are wry, amusing moments, which is what you would expect of the maker of "Chan Is Missing," "Dim Sum" and "Eat a Bowl of Soup"--there just aren't enough of them to satisfy. That the film is a dynamic visual treat unfortunately underlines its slightness and lack of inspiration.
Wang's feckless hero is a tall, young half-Chinese, half-Japanese (Spenser Nakasako, who also co-directed and wrote the original story with Wang and cameraman Amir M. Mokri) billed as The-Man-With-No-Name as an homage to Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. He is a San Francisco stable hand who arrives in Hong Kong wearing a ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots. He is there simply to deliver a briefcase, but predictably he is thrust into mystery and danger--sort of--involving tediously an underworld kingpin concerned with concealing that his mistress and his daughter are lovers.
Wang reveals his impulse for documentary in various asides with Hong Kong denizens, some of them real, others fictional--and one of them, the Blind Man, is played by earthy Wang regular Victor Wong. They range from an elderly dance instructor to a rich couple proud to have shown their pink Rolls Royce on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," and they are the film's brightest spots.
There is a limit, however, to how much humor can be mined from a sense of cross-cultural absurdity, and Wang might profitably have balanced it with some sense of the paranoia and uncertainty that surely is gripping Hong Kong as 1997 draws inexorably closer.
Recently, "Life Is Cheap" ran afoul of the MPAA ratings board because of some close-up shots of naked pregnant women in an erotic magazine. You can see how the MPAA had no choice but to rate the film X under its long-standing guidelines; you can also see how badly the ratings need to be revised. SilverLight Entertainment, which understandably refused the X, has released the film with a self-rated A for Adult, which is exactly the category the MPAA needs to add to its rating system.