Director: Jack Neo
Cast: Jack Neo, Mark Lee, Henry Thia, Yeo Yann Yann, Glenn Yong, Gadrick Chin, Angeline Teoh, Jamie Chu, Samuel Cher, Chanel Chan, Matthias Ng, Maverick Ng
Runtime: 2 hr 29 mins
Released By: mm2 Entertainment
Opening Day: 21 January 2023
Synopsis: Mao Shan (Jack Neo) is an ambitious durian farmer who wishes to expand his sales overseas against pressures from the "Three Heavenly Kings" of the business. He helps Mei Lian (Yeo Yann Yann), his neighbor and sole supporter, to improve her durian farm harvests and develops feelings for her in the process. However, Mei Lian's long-separated husband, Jin Shui (Mark Lee), returns, complicating things. Jin Shui tries to influence Mei Lian's children against Mao Shan, as Mao Shan fights to save both their businesses and win Mei Lian's heart.
‘The King of Musang King’ is Jack Neo’s first movie in six years that is neither a sequel or a spinoff , and as much as we’ve enjoyed the ‘Ah Boys to Men’ and ‘Long Long Time Ago’ sequels, we must say the ‘Ah Girls Go Army’ and ‘The Diam Diam Era’ spinoffs were abysmal disappointments. It also marks his reunion with Mark Lee and Henry Thia since ‘Money No Enough 2’ back in 2008, both of whom have come to define the actor-writer-director’s most entertaining works.
Either is good enough reason to be at least cautiously hopeful that Neo would rediscover the comedic mojo some had questioned he had lost in recent years, and thankfully that hope is not misplaced. Indeed, ‘King’ is the funniest Neo has been for some time, not just as the titular Wang Mao Shan who finds himself in an awkward love triangle between his neighbour Liu Mei Lian (Yeo Yann Yann) and her long-separated husband Wang Jin Shui (Lee), but also as a keen observer of the durian selling business across and over the Causeway.
The latter redeems an otherwise bumpy start that establishes how Mao Shan, who runs his own thriving durian plantation in Malaysia, enters into a “integrated management” with Mei Lian to improve the quality of the durians on her neighbouring Feng Shou Yuan estate, notwithstanding the initial objections of her children, especially her son Ah Liang (Glenn Yong) and second daughter Ah Mei (Angeline Teoh). From the history behind the ‘musang king’ breed, to how such trees are grown by grafting and not by seeds, and to how each individual durian is secured by string to prevent it from falling to the ground as it ripens, Neo maximises the location shoot at a real plantation in Pahang to reveal interesting nuggets about the beloved fruit.
It is not until after the first half-hour that the story kicks off proper with the unexpected return of Jin Shui just as Mao Shan is proposing to Mei Lian three years into their successful partnership. Following the failure of his businesses in Singapore, Jin Shui had decided to return to his kampung in Malaysia. Together with his buddy Ah Hui (Thia), as well as Ah Liang and Ah Mei, they set out to stop Mao Shan from winning Mei Lian’s heart; in particular, to prove that Feng Yuan can be just as successful without Mao Shan, they tap on Hui’s contacts to export their Feng Shou durian direct to sellers in Singapore, after both Ah Liang and Ah Mei offend the veteran ‘Two Kings and One Queen’ wholesalers in their village.
Those familiar with Neo’s works will be accustomed to the episodic structure of his storytelling, and ‘King’, which Neo co-wrote with his ‘Long Long Time Ago’ and ‘Ah Boys to Men 3’ collaborator Ivan Ho, is no different. A good part of the second act has to do with how these players withstand the COVID-19 pandemic, what with Ah Liang and then Mei Lian falling ill, the Movement Control Order (i.e. Malaysia’s equivalent of the Circuit Breaker) in effect, and last but not least their use of live-streaming to drive sales through third-party deliveries. There is also a whole third act that sees Jin Shui exploiting live-streaming to make Mao Shan public enemy number one, before ultimately causing his own downfall as a result of his own hubris, and inadvertently endangering Mei Lian’s life in the process.
True to our initial fears, at close to two and a half hours, ‘King’ runs at least a good half-hour too long, with the indulgence laying bare Neo’s worst histrionic tendencies. What could have been a touching reconciliation between mother (Mei Lian) and son (Ah Liang) turns melodramatic, and what mano-a-mano confrontation between rival suitors (Mao Shan versus Jin Shui) becomes a needlessly protracted affair complete with a finale that literally goes up in flames. Whilst Neo has more or less decided to ignore his critics on account of his box-office mettle, there is no denying his flaws as a filmmaker, not least when they are on full and unbridled display.
That said, ‘King’ also reaffirms how that mettle was won. A segment where Jin Shui explains to Hui why all the best things in the world start with L (including our PM and PM-designate) is laugh out loud hilarious. A sequence where Jin Shui and Mei Lian respectively recount what happened 20 years ago that caused him to leave his family behind unfolds in trademark Neo screwball style, and is we dare say surprisingly delightful. The recurring references to Tua Pek Kong and Goddess of Mercy to decide who Mei Lian is fated to be with are also consistently amusing, and so too the barbs between Mao Shan and Jin Shui at each other’s eligibility.
‘King’ also boasts yet again the easy chemistry between Neo and Lee, with the latter once again reprising the persona of an arrogant lout to utter perfection. Lee and Thia also share some pleasant vignettes of buddy comedy, though Thia’s signature deadpanning is upstaged here by Gadrick Chin, who plays Mao Shan’s assistant Sha Bao. Yann Yann is an invaluable addition to the cast, bringing nuance, dignity and poignancy to a critical but somewhat underwritten role, especially in the second half when the focus seems to shift to the rivalry between Neo and Lee’s characters. To be sure, the rest of the supporting cast are competent, but the movie belongs to the incomparable trio of Neo, Lee and Thia and to a smaller extent Yann Yann.
Despite its shortcomings therefore, ‘King’ is one of the better Jack Neo movies in recent memory. As is typical of his works, the parts are better than the whole, though there are more than less parts here that hit their mark. Like we said, this could be a tighter movie without losing much story-wise, and we might add that the final cut could be more polished with more time in the editing studio. Still, as this year’s Chinese New Year staple, ‘King’ is undoubtedly ‘bao jiak’ (or in literal terms, eat with much satisfaction) and as good a way to enjoy the holidays with family and loved ones.
(Much for the better than for worse, Jack Neo's latest boasts some laugh out loud bits, some other diverting parts, and some regretfully histronic moments)
Review by Gabriel Chong