NYAFF XXII Review: In Giddens Ko’s MISS SHAMPOO, Sudsy Romantic Cheese Takes A Little Too Much Off The Top
One of the more promising titles coming out of Taiwan lately brings Vivian Sung and Daniel Hong together for romantic gangster comedy, Miss Shampoo. Going into the film though, you’d be forgiven if you took any of what you’d seen at face value before being nearly upended by one of the most bombastic, self-aware endings to a film of this kind. Indeed, there are some plusses to mind here with Miss Shampoo, but the biggest let-down occurs about midway when any and all progress is brought to a crashing halt in a single moment of unwarranted rancor.
It all starts when wounded gangster Tai (Hong) stumbles into a hair salon whose sole occupant, Feng (Sung) takes it upon herself to cover for him, just as a small squad of Thai assassins bogard the place. To no avail, they leave without finding Tai, which leaves Tai and the gang he’s inherited following the death of his boss, indebted to Feng for giving her refuge. Of course, with Tai now the head of the gang, he’s compelled to proffer up a new look, as does most of his underlings, in a twist that also ensues a burgeoning romance between Tai, and Feng, who, apart from striving to escalate from her hair washing position to that of a professional stylist, has her own set of problems.
Invariably, what keeps her going and provides her a good few beats of momentous motivation is the poster she has on her work wall displaying her favorite baseball player. It comes in handy from the first day Tai sits in her chair, while Tai’s own self-discovery and realizations about what he wants now finds him adapting just a little more to his newfound feelings for Feng. Alas, it’s when Feng’s personal love life gets a little more rocky than preferred that Tai finds himself on much greener pastures, and both he and Feng manage to find an in-roads to one another despite both their lives being clearly dissonant with the others.
It helps that the chemistry and levity isn’t just limited to our two main characters. Actors Kai Ko, Emerson Tsai, and Ling Yang-Feng co-star in the respective roles of Leggy, Fishy and Bryan, all members of Tai’s gang and who each take a liking to Feng and the small salon and its other co-owners including Mei-Man (Chen Ming-Shu) and Guan (Bai Bai). The film partially starts off with a gruesome death scene while much of its remainder, save for its more grimdark areas and elements, bolsters with high energy and upbeat comedy and romantic fervor which makes it easy to forget that our antiheroes are also involved in some pretty scummy business despite their own, well, “morals”.
Oddly enough, it’s during a prospective dinner meeting with the family where Tai deliniates his devotion to Feng that she’s clearly and visibly so into him. So, halfway in the film when Tai and Feng convene at the ball stadium for a game along with the rest of his crew much to her chagrin and almost cause a ruckus, Tai decides to spring up a surprise for Feng, a move soon met with Feng’s own bristling disapproval, so much so that she storms out and calls of the relationship. This is where the film reaches the requisite climactic low point of impasse where what follows is a discussion between Feng and another key character, a scene that intends to not only bring clarity to Feng, but to make her reaction somehow forgivable. I was already taken out of the film by this point so it was all pretty much downhill from there.
At nearly two hours, Ko’s Miss Shampoo induces enough raunchy comedy to warrant some mature entertainment coupled along with its few key action sequences. There’s an underlying story of betrayal that comes full circle, and the writing of some characters that often catch you wondering who’s gonna flip on who. The good news here is that the film is also part-murder mystery and Ko does ample work at being consistent with this aspect. It’s enough to warrant at least a second brutal and bloody final fight scene in a bathhouse between Tai and Leggy against a horde of Thai hitmen, and one of the most deceptively convincing acts of violence you’ll see in a film with an ending that will turn the story on its head.
Hong and Sung lead a worthwhile love story for about half the way, and if you can buy the ridiculousness that happens midway into the film long enough to find the disbelief suspendable enough, you’ll enjoy it pretty much all the way through. The comedy bits and deadpan are great and even memorable, including when Tai’s head is still foamy between two scenes after hearing some rather shocking news. There’s another when Fishy takes Guan to task to remember the names of Tai’s gang, including the correct pronounciation of Bryan’s name, as well as a few awkward passing moments between Leggy and Bryan – reasons best explained for visual optics.
Conclusively though, any fulfillment you get out of Miss Shampoo is best handled by avoiding as much seriousness as the film dares you to during its runtime. The film runs strong on its performances by Hong and Sung, and the intricate, interwoven politics and comedic silliness that unravels makes for some joyous, adulterated filmmaking at times, and if you rest too much seriousness and emotional weight on our main characters, I fear you might be as numb as I was by the credits.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.