Shed Skin Papa film review: Francis Ng, Louis Koo as father and son in Hong Kong’s answer to Benjamin Button
A fantastical drama that struggles to translate the profound musings of its source material for the big screen, Shed Skin Papa features, among other things, Ng ageing backwards by a decade or two every day by shedding his skin
A miserable failure of a man is given a magical opportunity to review a few key incidents from his adulthood and learn more about his ageing father’s life history in Shed Skin Papa, an effects-heavy adaptation of playwright Norihiko Tsukuda’s popular Japanese play.
While the film is co-scripted by Tsukuda and Roy Szeto Wai-cheuk, who has previously directed an acclaimed Cantonese version of the play for the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, this high-concept comedy drama feels like a misguided attempt to translate the profound musings of the fantastical story for the big screen.
Reigning Hong Kong Film Awards best actor Louis Koo Tin-lok plays Tian Lik-hang, a failing filmmaker whose career and marriage are both in shambles. Shortly after his mother dies, and under pressure from both the worsening condition of his dementia-stricken father (Francis Ng Chun-yu) and the push for divorce from his disillusioned wife (Jacky Cai Jie), he decides to end his own life.
Before he succeeds, however, Tian is saved by a vision of his dead mother (Jessie Li of Port of Call). A range of supernatural occurrences follow that see his father starting to age backwards by a decade or two every day by shedding his skin like a cicada. I wonder what F. Scott Fitzgerald, who penned the thematically similar The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, would make of this.
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As father and son begin to reminisce about their time together, Shed Skin Papa makes use of its absurd premise to derive some scattered jokes from the pair’s interaction with those around them. Darker themes such as infidelity and broken dreams then take over – before the plot spins completely out of control in the third act, which at one point sees six Francis Ng’s share the same table.
Ng was, for his troubles, rewarded with a best actor nod at the 2017 Hong Kong Film Awards. Yet there is no denying that the film is an acute case of diminishing returns. While theatre audiences may be more forgiving towards the lack of realistic visual representation on stage, verbal recollection and subpar CGI fantasy sequences hardly give rise to the equivalent emotional impact on screen.
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In the story, the directorial debut of Koo’s character Tian turns out to be such a dud commercially that he is put on filmmaking hiatus. Although I would be happy to be proved wrong, Szeto may well meet a similar fate in real life with this curiosity item. After all, Shed Skin Papa has more or less been lingering in distribution limbo since it premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2016.
On the plus side, though, at least Szeto seems to understand that life is beautiful despite its many hurdles, as Shed Skin Papa tries to convince us with its ambitious yet progressively chaotic narrative.
Shed Skin Papa opens on May 10
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