Love, music and brutal pound-for-pound action go hand-in-hand in Johnnie To‘s latest romantic action drama, Chasing Dream.
The casting of Jacky Heung and Keru Wang brings a festive entry into a tale layered with action and sprinkles of romance and interwoven drama, as we meet Tiger, an MMA legend in the making, and Cuckoo, a ringside cheerleader. After a failed attempt to escape the arena, both characters stumble upon each other in a chance meeting that finds the elusive Cuckoo caught in the clutches of Tiger’s manager, gangster and loanshark Gao Qiang (Bin Zi).
Tiger, who is in Gao’s camp, decides to put Cuckoo to work in order to help pay off her debts, and it soon turns into an opportunity for reprisal when Cuckoo she spots her ex-boyfriend-cum-music superstar Qu Fengfeng (Ma Xiachui) in a commercial launching the next talent search for a hit program called The Perfect Diva. Alas, the arrangement turns into a symbiotic partnership in which both Tiger and Cuckoo will rely on each other to help achieve their goals.
As Cuckoo excels in the preliminary and main phases of the contest, the exciteable and dauntless Tiger readies with plans for a hotpot restaurant franchise as he nears his end of a fight career that’s cornering him into near blindness and severe injury. For this, it’s only a matter of time before business becomes something much more personal with Cuckoo, and their feelings with one another, while dark plot twists arise that put both Cuckoo and Tiger in the biggest bind of their lives, drawing questions of whether or not the goals they’ve set for themselves will all be for nothing, or perhaps so much more.
Just several years since releasing Louis Koo crime thriller, Three, you kind of get the feeling that To decided to have some fun on this one, and despite how brisk, rushed and unrelenting the pacing feels at times, it totally works to the betterment of the film. The primary characters in Chasing Dream all culminate a script that’s been written with energy and enthusiasm aplenty, combining emotive drama and unforeseen romance, MMA action, melodrama, well-acted music performances, and a rather nonplussing dance number to spice things up.
Tiger is pretty much emotionally unavailable from the beginning as he’s heavily into ramping up the crowd, but he still manages to take notice of Cuckoo. It’s not love at first sight though, and their partnership is as reluctant as it naturally gets at first after being clenched by a gangster and having control of your life taken away. That Tiger chooses to take her in is just the first step in the peeling back of his own layers as someone who has likely never been in love.
As the romance arc between him Cuckoo takes shape, we also learn more about Cuckoo and life after leaving her grandma, and the resulting affect much to everyone’s chagrin, which also introduces the role of the Qu, whose pretense knows no limits when it comes to maintaining his superstar façade. Cuckoo’s got a bone to pick with him, and her coalition with Tiger is her only means to confronting him for the wrongs he’s done, and the struggle she’s had to deal with as a result.
The film later explores Tiger’s fighting background which brings viewers into Ma Qing’s (Shao Bing) boxing school where he teaches young orphans. There’s a great deal of backstory here that not only contributes to the film in the second half for its development, but also sets up an energizing finale that takes you ringside.
That Heung is talented martial artist for well over a decade lends greatly to his caliber as a screentalent over the years, as it does so here for choreographer Wong Wai Leung, as well as To who directs the action. The biggest feat of the film, however, has to be the musical numbers and original score, all by Peter Kam, to the benefit of actress Wang in her competition scenes. Even some of the performance scenes lend a bit of gravitas and absurdity to the point where you know it’s not accidental that To is kicking back and relaxing on this latest outing.
Visually, you might be able to tell the difference between which shots are done in-studio compared to on-location. Some of the background set pieces are noticeably greenscreened, and the wirework moments are about as hit-or-miss as some of the acted music performances, including a singer/guitarist who wins the appeal of audiences but can’t seem to shake off injuring herself. It’s a hilarious gag brilliantly executed through and through, and adds to the kind spotaneity that To offers his fans in Chasing Dream, which guaranteeably delivers a sprightly, picaresque underdog romance tale with surprising moments, a timbre that never lets up, and an ending that would have Rocky fans standing up and cheering.
NYAFF streams for its 19th installment from August 28 through September 12. Click here to learn more!