Director: Jack Neo
Cast: Jack Neo, Mark Lee, Henry Thia, Wang Lei, Chua Lee Lian, Jaspers Lai, Cavin Soh, Benjamin Tan, Ryan Lian, Noah Yap, Cai Ping Kai, Gadrick Chin
Runtime: 2 hrs 12 mins
Rating: PG (Some Sexual References)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 15 February 2018
Synopsis: Liang Xi Mei (Jack Neo) is finally back! Now retired, Liang Xi Mei spends her time looking after her obedient grandchildren. However, Robert (Mark Lee), her eldest son adds to her woes as he is always dreaming of making a fortune through easy means. She pins all her hopes on her youngest son, Albert (Benjamin Josiah Tan). Her favouritism stirs up jealousy within Robert, who vows to strike it rich to win Liang Xi Mei’s approval. By chance, Robert picks up the doll that is actually the Goddess of Fortune! She helps Robert but also appeals to him to be more down to earth and practical in his pursuit of success and wealth. Instead, he turns into an ingrate as soon as his hawker business takes off. His arrogance incurs the wrath of the God of Misfortune who decides to teach him a lesson. Soon, trouble ensues among Liang Xi Mei’s family and their best friends Guang Dong Po (Wang Lei) and Lion King (Henry Thia). Will they get through this headache of a situation together as a family?
You’d probably reacted to news of a ‘Liang Xi Mei’ movie in one of two ways – ‘why only now’ or ‘why even bother’? The former shouldn’t be a surprise to those who have seen the ongoing dialect (yes, dialect!) variety series on Mediacorp Channel 8 entitled ‘Happy Can Already’, which saw Jack Neo reprise his titular cross-dressing role to entertain and educate seniors with the support of no less than the Ministry of Communication and Information. The latter is as much a natural evolution from Xi Mei’s return to the goggle box as it is a lynchpin of homegrown media company MM2 Entertainment’s move to mine local IP for uniquely Singaporean content, though we’re not sure we mind either way as long as it is enjoyable.
Much to our pleasant surprise, wonderful isn’t actually that much of a superlative to describe Jack Neo’s movie, which packs plenty of generous laughs and heartwarming moments into a CNY-themed narrative. Co-written by Neo and his regular collaborator Ivan Ho, the plotting isn’t simply a collection of loosely strung together skits; in fact, there is a coherent and cohesive story here about Xi Mei’s older son Robert’s (Mark Lee) insatiable greed of money and the ensuing series of unfortunate consequences on his family. In the spirit of the season, Robert’s misadventures involve two opposing fortune deities – the Goddess of Fortune (Cai Ping Kai) who genuinely endeavours to bring him luck and happiness, and the God of Misfortune (a very creepy Gadrick Chin in black robes and ‘goth’ make-up) who is all too eager to exploit his arrogance and self-conceitedness to engineer his demise.
Other than these two additions though, the other supporting characters that are part of Robert’s rise and fall should be familiar to loyal fans of the TV series – Xi Mei’s good friend and next-door neighbour Cantonese Granny (Wang Lei), as well as Robert’s do-no-gooder friend Lion King (Henry Thia) and his son Merlion King (Jaspers Lai). It is Cantonese Granny who singlehandedly rescues Robert’s fledgling coffee shop stall by cooking her signature ‘white bee hoon’ for a customer who requests for the dish, and subsequently passes on her recipe to Robert and his assistants Lion King and Merlion King after the dish becomes an overnight sensation. Alas Robert’s success quickly gets to his head, and besides forcing neighbouring stallholder Kway Teow King (Cavin Soh) out of business, he gets caught up in a ‘Mee Chiling’ (get it?) scam that costs him his entire fortune as well as his home (which Xi Mei mortgages to give him the capital he had asked for).
As true as one bad thing leads to another, Robert gets his whole family entangled in an impromptu kidnapping by a couple of loansharks (two of whom are played by Neo’s ‘Ah Boys’ Ryan Lian and Noah Yap), culminating in an emotionally charged standoff that is undeniably histrionic but unexpectedly moving – not only will he confront his mother over her overt favouritism of his younger brother Albert (Benjamin Tan), Robert will also reveal just why he had beat up a couple of schoolmates in secondary school and even set his principal’s car on fire. By the time Neo’s other famous cross-dressing character Liang Po Po turns up to bookend the film, you’ll be surprised by its poignant depiction of ‘mummy/ daddy issues’ as well as how neatly a supposed throwaway character (we won’t spoil it for you here) ties into the overall story.
If all that however sounds like Xi Mei plays second fiddle to Robert in her own movie, you’re quite right. Unlike in say Neo’s previous ‘Liang Po Po: The Movie’, the story here doesn’t quite revolve around Xi Mei; at best, her sometimes unfair criticism of Robert of how much he earns is the primary reason why he seems so obsessed with money, although his swift downfall after finding success with his revamped ‘white bee hoon’ stall is in larger part due to his own hubris. Yet if the first act is anything to go by, it is for the better that she is not the main character of her own movie, else we might end up with a whole string of Public Service Announcements about phishing scams, fake news, diabetes and the importance of regular health check-ups – or in short, the equivalent of what you would expect if the Government, instead of commercial entities, were doing product placements in a Jack Neo movie (which in this case, it did).
Coming after one of the worst Neo movies in recent memory (we’re talking about ‘Ah Boys to Men 4’), this is almost an astonishing delight. There is plenty of Neo’s madcap witticisms - such as a sequence which sees the wives of ‘Fu Lu Shou’ (played by Yeo Yann Yann, Aileen Chia and Irene Ang) join Fortune Goddess and Misfortune God for a ‘bor’ meeting (get it?), and another where Xi Mei mocks Albert and his clique of ‘act cool’ friends for dressing up in black from head to toe on the first day of the New Year. Neo also injects good fun with two running jokes – one with Fortune Goddess appearing as different persons to Robert, including an Indian parking attendant and his very wife Mary (Chua Lee Tian) no less; and two by pairing different characters played by the same actor in the same scene, such as Lion King paying New year greetings to Xi Mei’s father-in-law (also played by Henry Thia) and Canto Granny hooking up with the real-life Wang Lei.
But just as, if not more, significant is the fact that ‘Wonderful! Liang Xi Mei’ teams up Neo, Thia and Lee on the big screen for the first time since ‘Money No Enough 2’ a decade ago, and the trio are simply wonderful together. Lee brings his trademark loutish brio to Robert, and Neo and Thia provide excellent comic foil with sardonism and idiocy respectively. Their chemistry honed through decades of sharing the stage and screen with one another is plainly evident, and a sheer joy to watch. In fact, it is not too much of an overstatement to proclaim that the movie belongs to them, notwithstanding the comedic mileage that the veteran Cai brings with her droll turn as the Fortune Goddess. To be sure, the rest of the supporting actors aren’t given much to do with their stock character types, and some like Lai and Tan seem present only to ensure continuity with the TV series.
Next to Neo’s previous CNY offerings, this latest counts as one of the better ones – the jokes mostly land, the delivery is spot-on, and the heart-tugging parts come off surprisingly affecting – though not quite yet of the same gold standard as ‘I Not Stupid’. It is however one of the few straightforward ‘贺岁片’ that he has made, and not counting Lee Thean-jeen’s ‘Homecoming’ which he played a pivotal but supporting role in, ‘Wonderful Liang Xi Mei’ is easily the most entertaining one he has written and directed. It is by now widely established that his movies turn out critically panned and commercially embraced, and the fact that Neo takes a jab at the former shows his confidence at having delivered a crowd-pleasing film. True enough, we’re quite sure this will be an audience smash, but at least this time round (compared to say ‘Ah Boys to Men 4’), that sentiment isn’t misplaced.
(A joyful reunion of the 'Comedy Night' trio - Jack Neo, Henry Thia and Mark Lee - with Neo's trademark witticisms and heart-tugging melodrama make this a winning CNY delight that will bring out the laughs and tears)
Review by Gabriel Chong