Dir:Ning Hao. China. 2006.100mins.

The commercialpotential for modestly budgeted, audience-oriented films in China's filmindustry may be more theoretical than fully realised -but Ning Hao's Crazy Stone is a model exampleof how it can work, combining as it does box-office appeal with strongproduction values and a jazzy contemporary sensibility.

New Chinese cinema is multi-faceted,and well-made genre movies like this offer an alternative to the costumemelodramas, martial arts blockbusters, and dramas of subterranean social angstthat dominantly define the country on the festival circuit. Distributors andprogrammers, both in Asia and further afield, shouldtake note of this caper comedy, which boasts s madcap sensibility,furious pacing and snazzy style to spare.

Ning's first two films, thequietly droll Incense (2003) and Mongolian Ping Pong (2005), hinted atthe director's penchant for drawing humour fromclosely observed details of quirky character and situation. But it took thiscollaboration with Focus Films, Hong Kong megastar Andy Lau's production company, to awaken his latent commercialsensibilities.

Crazy Stone isproduced by Focus First Cuts, a series showcasing six feature films on HD DV byyoung new Asian directors (Lau himself sings the film's theme song). Thefeature is playing well after opening in late June in China,taking RMB 3m from 103 prints during its nationwide opening weekend: impressivenumbers for a low-budget film without big stars.

A pleasantly convoluted plot centres around the theft of avaluable piece of jade. Discovered by factory owner XieTianli, who is in deep debt to rapacious developer Feng (Xu Zheng),the jewel offers Xie a way to pay off Feng and thereby secure the jobs of his 200 employees. Sohe arranges to display the jewel, presumably increasing its value, in a dustylittle Chongqing temple festooned with tacky dancers.

Hired to protect the jade is Bao (Guo Tao), a factory securitydirector with a serious prostate problem and a fierce dedication to his newmission. Feng turns to international HK-based superthief "Mike" to steal the jewel, but three bumbling local thieves (Dao Ge, Xiao Jun, and Hei Pi) swipeMike's briefcase full of plans and decide to beat him to the jade.

This three-cornered heist comedy isfurther complicated by Xie's good-for-nothingartist-photographer cum lothario son Xie Xiaomeng (Peng Bo), who also needs the jade to helpseduce Jing Jing (Hou Shu)- who just happens to be Dao Ge's girlfriend.

A richly interlocking set ofcoincidences (guard Bao and the local thieves stay inadjacent rooms of a hotel, but never figure out they are working against eachother), double-crosses and misunderstandings (the jewel gets switched with afake three times, provoking multiple misunderstandings) propels the story toits satisfying conclusion.

Director Ningreaches into Hong Kong cinema's kit of cinematography tricks, and ups theintensity: scenes are spliced together with hilarious matching shots completewith tongue-in-cheek sound effects. Canted cameras, stuttering jump cuts, fisheye lenses, multiple speeds within a shot, and modest but effective visualeffects spice the story with visual flair and enhance the narrative's nimblerhythms.

Two bravado sequences see all fourstorylines cross and play out as time-puzzlers, approached from eachcharacter's viewpoint in a impressively designednon-chronological sequence.

Performances are uniformly excellent: Guo Tao plays Bao with a dramaticintensity and comic range that ably hold the film's centre. Liu Hao is all elegant command and subtle menace as Dao Ge, andHuang Bo is hilarious as his sweet-voiced hapless comrade-in-thievery.

Musical score is a nifty combinationof guitar-rock and traditional instruments (playing selections fromTchaikovsky's The Nutcracker): soundeffects dazzle. The Sichuanese river port of Chongqing, which features in a large number of Chinesefilms this season, provides a refreshingly vibrant setting for this modest yetsatisfying comedy.

Production companies
Concord Creation International
Warner China Film
Focus Films
Huahuo Wenhua Fazhan

International sales
Focus Films

Chinese distribution
Warner China Film HG

Executive producers
Yang Buting
Cao Zhong
Andy Lau

Lan Ruilong
Bao Shihong
Zhou Lin
Han Sanping
Yu Weiguo

Zhang Cheng
Yue Xiaojun
Ning Hao

Du Jie

Production design
Zhang Xiaobing
Li Yading

Funky Moji
Yuan Yi

Main cast
Guo Tao
Liu Hua
Lian Jin
Huang Bo
Yue Xiaojun
Hou Shu
Chen Zhonghua
Peng Bo
Wang Xun
Xu Zheng
Wang Jianing