A statue of Optimus Prime overlooks the Hong Kong skyline. Photo: AFP
From The Hip
by Jeremy Blum
From The Hip
by Jeremy Blum

Transformers: Age of Extinction is a terrible film, but hilarious to watch as a Hongkonger

Product placements, a Hong Kong finale and pro-Beijing propaganda galore - the latest was most definitely made in China

Transformers: Age of Extinction is a fantastically terrible film. It is so wonderfully bad that it somehow manages to become good. 

Director Michael Bay's Transformers films are infamous for following the same formula specifically designed to appeal to 17-year-old boys: explosions, scantily-clad young women and hokey plots that eventually devolve into robot porn.

Such has been the norm for the past three Transformers flicks, but this time for the fourth entry, Bay has upped the ante with 165 minutes of ridiculousness that send all remaining vestiges of sensibility out of the window.

Age of Extinction's plot revolves around government espionage over the awkwardly named element "Transformium", which just so happens to be the genetic material that makes up the series' robotic mainstay Optimus Prime and his fellow Transformers.

Frankly, the plot has holes huge enough for an Autobot to drive through. The human characters are all fairly forgettable and will make you miss former series star Shia LaBeouf, and the film's pace, at least for the first half, is plodding.

But despite all of this, I have to admit that this film is still worth seeing, especially as a Hongkonger. Why? Because its second half takes place entirely in Hong Kong, and it is hilarious. 

It's a well known fact that the Transformers franchise prints money in China, so for Age of Extinction, a deal was struck to create the film as a joint production between Paramount Pictures and two Chinese companies - China Movie Channel and Jiaflix Enterprises.

Because of this collaboration, Chinese fingerprints are all over the film from the opening logo to the final credits, and while previous Transformers films may have alluded to the Middle Kingdom, Age of Extinction kicks everything up a notch, featuring a plethora of Chinese product placement with everything from Lenovo computers to Shuhua boxed milk on display.

And then there are cameos by famous stars like Ray Lui Leung-wai and boxer Zou Shiming, not to mention a supporting role from Li Bingbing, who plays the "token local actress" that Paramount execs surely had to cast as per contract regulations. (Li actually does a decent job.) 

But the film's biggest ode to China comes in its final 30-minute all-out war in Hong Kong. And this is where the film stops being plodding and starts becoming funny.

Watch: Transformers: Age of Extinction trailer

Prior to coming to Hong Kong, the human characters in the film are forced to relocate from Chicago to Beijing, where their factory hideout is attacked by renegade Transformers. Before we know it, both these Transformers and rogue CIA agents are hot on the tail of our protagonists. Pushing everyone into a car, Li Bingbing whisks the motley crew away and notes that she "knows how to lose them in Hong Kong."

The next second, BAM, everyone's in Hong Kong - still in the same vehicle! Presumably they drove there, even though according to Google, it would take at least 20 hours to drive to Hong Kong from Beijing, and that's only if you were driving at a speed of roughly 96km/h the entire time.

(Edit: A friend of mine pointed out that the factory is supposed to be in Guangzhou, and the characters travel from Beijing to Guangzhou and then drive to Hong Kong, which makes a bit more sense. I blame the movie's crazy pacing for making me overlook this.)

But logic be damned, this film doesn't bat an eyelid. The next second, Optimus Prime and his compadres are suddenly fighting off an entire invasion of enemy robots in the streets of Asia's World City, harnessing the power of the Dinobots (which are exactly what the name sounds like - dinosaur Transformers) to win the fight. In the process, they basically destroy all of Kowloon and Central.

Speaking of Kowloon and Central, the film cuts between various Hong Kong locales as if it were edited by a hyperactive toddler. One minute everyone's being chased through the wet markets near Aberdeen Street, the next they're in To Kwa Wan. Oh look, there's Optimus Prime riding a Dinobot through a vegetation-filled area that seems to be somewhere in the ... New Territories, perhaps? Oh wow, and now everyone's fighting on the Star Ferry. These Transformers sure know how to move their way around Hong Kong in a jiffy - it's too bad the MTR corporation can't figure out a way to harness this power of fast transporation.

And since the movie was a joint production with two mainland Chinese companies, there's even some not-so-subtle pro-Beijing propaganda thrown in the midst of all the chaos, evidenced by a bizarre scene where a group of Hong Kong officials watch the Transformers turn their city into ruins and awkwardly remark (in English) that "we need to call the central government for help now"!

The movie then cuts to a bunch of slapdash scenes in Beijing that show mainland fighter jets taking off and an official declaring that "the central government will defend Hong Kong at all costs"!

Yet despite its sheer idiocy and obvious propaganda, there is something spellbinding about watching a Transformers film so intertwined with China, with so many scenes prominently featuring the city that I live in.

As I watched Optimus Prime raise his sword with the shining Hong Kong harbour behind him, I couldn't help but be transfixed by an odd feeling of excitement at seeing these giant mechanical creatures flex their way through the sights and sounds that I witness on a daily basis.

This feeling is precisely what Paramount execs wanted to achieve by collaborating with Chinese companies on this film - they wanted to boost Age of Extinction sales in China by giving local viewers the sense of amazement that comes from seeing larger-than-life Hollywood characters prancing about in their hometown. And to a large extent, they've succeeded.

In many ways, Age of Extinction represents the highest profile example of a new era in filmmaking, where Hollywood studios are depending on the international figures generated by Chinese viewers to make or break their blockbusters.

Ever since 2008's The Dark Knight, there's been a concious trend of including more China-related elements in American films, whether they be brief scenes set in Shanghai (like in 2012's Skyfall) or entire plots staged in Hong Kong (a la 2013's Pacific Rim).

But Age of Extinction's role as the most egregious example of this trend still doesn't make the film truly enjoyable. Since it's held back by Bay's campy directorial style of appealing to 17-year-old boys, it can only reach "so bad it's good" status. The only difference is that this time around, the audience of 17-year-old boys has expanded from "primarily American" to "Americans and their teenage counterparts in China".

US and China productions can do better, and even though Age of Extinction made a whopping 600 million yuan (HK$750 million) at the Chinese box office, one can only hope that as this trend of East and West film collaboration continues, a fully-fledged quality film will one day be made instead of just wacky robot porn.  

But at least until that day happens, we know that the "central government" will protect us at all costs if Transformers ever show up in Hong Kong. Thank goodness for that.