"Life Is Cheap . . . but toilet paper is expensive" is a new comedy from San Francisco filmmaker Wayne Wang.
But those familiar with Wang's other films - "Chan Is Missing," "Dim Sum" and "Eat a Bowl of Tea," which are all delightful, controlled semicomic examinations of Chinese-Americans caught between two cultures - are in for a shock."Life Is Cheap" is some kind of weird cross between the early movies of John Waters, the spoofery of Japanese filmmaker Juzo Itami and such true-life geek shows as "Mondo Cane."
Like Wang's first film, "Chan Is Missing," "Life Is Cheap" takes on the comic cloak of the '40s film noir detective formula. The story has a young, nameless American, who fancies Western duds and whose heritage is half Chinese and half Japanese, taking a job as courier to Hong Kong, where he is to deliver a mysterious metal suitcase to a big-time gangster.
As you might expect, he is continually distracted in both his efforts to deliver the suitcase and to see some of the sights, which provide myriad excuses for Wang to explore Hong Kong as the last bastion of the war between communism and democracy.
The "Mr. Big" he seeks doesn't seem to want the suitcase - he's got troubles of his own. And soon our hero is mixed up in a variety of unexpected situations that spell trouble.
While there are a few mildly amusing bits sandwiched between an amazing array of vulgar sequences, the visual style Wang has chosen is choppy at best and unintelligible at worst, as with a lengthy chase about midway into the film.
Amid the main character's meetings with weird characters who offer monologues directly into the camera, Wang includes such real-life documentary moments as an interview with a pompous wealthy Chinese couple (Mr. and Mrs. Kai-Bong Chau) and frequent shots of upside-down fowl being bled to death.
The film concludes with the hero performing a "noble" act of respect, a rather disgusting moment stolen from the end of John Waters' "Pink Flamingos."
To say this self-indulgent and occasionally repulsive movie is less enjoyable than Wang's earlier films is like saying it hurts to hit yourself on the head with a hammer.
Is this Wang's idea of artistic release? Is it the style of his credited co-director and screenwriter Spencer Nakasako, who also plays the lead role (though the character's voice-overs are by actor Dennis Dun)?
Let's just hope Wang got it out of his system and his next film will be back on track.
"Life Is Cheap . . . but toilet paper is expensive" is not rated but would doubtless get an NC-17 for violence, gore, sex, nudity (including some obscene photographs), considerable profanity, vulgarity and coprophagy.