Despite the holiday never being invoked in the course of its 95 minutes, one would be hard-pressed to find a movie that better captures the Hong Kong celluloid aura of the Lunar New Year than this 1987 blockbuster.
What director-scriptwriter Clifton Ko Chi-sum lacked in motion-picture technique was more than compensated for by an uncanny knack for finding humour in the protagonists’ materialism – and by extension Hong Kong’s – as well as the narrative’s ability to transform naked greed into an admirable family trait.
The mad world depicted is a reflection, albeit highly exaggerated, of the city’s psyche a decade before the handover, and not without relevance today. Uncle Bill (Bill Tung Biu), a television announcer who somehow still qualifies for public housing, and his wife, Aunty Lydia (Lydia Sum Tin-ha), are archetypal would-be tycoons longing for that most quintessential of Hong Kong desires: more spacious accommodation.
The younger generation is represented by a trio of daughters: a budding beauty (Elsie Chan Yik-see), a slightly rebellious teen (Loletta Lee Lai-chen) and a no-nonsense tween (Pauline Kwan Pui-lam). Their predicaments serve to illustrate the central question of whether winning the Mark Six lottery is a blessing or a curse.
The milieu of the cramped housing estate forms an unexpectedly realistic counterpoint to the dream sequences and fanciful vignettes of the upper crust environs to which the family aspires. Few characters display many admirable qualities, yet the proceedings are so good-natured that a viewer is hard-put to disdain even the kidnappers who snatch one of the sisters.
Chief credit goes to the stellar couple at the centre, as Tung and Sum display such screen chemistry that watching them interact is akin to spectating at a tennis match between two aces. The most intentionally jarring bit of casting is of the then 34-year-old Eric Tsang Chi-wai as the romantic object of the eldest daughter’s affection. David Chiang Da-wei gets the picture’s only underplayed role, as Bill’s despised-
Released during the nascent phase of Hong Kong cinema’s last golden age, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World is a droll reminder of a time when throngs supported local productions to the extent that the comedy’s box office outperformed the combined ticket sales of fellow 1987 releases RoboCop and Platoon.
Though much has changed politically and cinematically in the intervening 30 years, the film holds up remarkably well because of its unpretentious go-for-broke grab for audience dollars and sincere belief that in this crazy world of ours, the Uncle Bills and Aunty Lydias will somehow come out on top.
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World will be screened on February 11 at the Hong Kong Film Archive, in Sai Wan Ho, as part of the CNY Fever: It’s a Material World programme.