Director Ning Hao and star Andy Lau re-team for this savvy film industry satire

The Movie Emperor

Source: Courtesy of BIFF

The Movie Emperor

Dir: Ning Hao. China. 2023. 102mins

What is a megastar without critical kudos? How do old-school celebrities, with their old-school sense of entitlement, negotiate our brave new world of social media juries and needy, aggressive fan culture? How massive do you have to be to persuade a luxury hotel to accommodate your pet pig? These are just some of the questions raised in Ning Hao’s rambling, bittersweet film industry satire, which features a flavorsome Andy Lau Tak-wah as an on-the-wane celebrity actor keen to reboot his brand.

There is a brittle fragility in this account of an arrogant, out-of-touch star

Densely packed with references to Lau’s career and to Hong Kong and Chinese mainland films and celebrity culture, The Movie Emperor is a film that has been precision-engineered for local audiences. Elsewhere, outside of diaspora markets, it will likely reach out to more specialised niches after a fall festival run which started in Toronto and ends with closing Busan – fans of Asian cinema, late-night urban arthouse slots – before nuzzling into a streamer berth.

While there are more than a few China-specific in-jokes here, Hao’s knowing comedy makes a good case for the cross-border universality of the world it portrays, one of viral video takedowns and crass digital moguls who are keen to sow kudos by throwing some money at legacy media. It’s not so much its local flavour that will hold The Movie Emperor back from wider distribution, more its halting storyline which soon, after the promising set-up, turns into series of incremental displays of a vain man’s hubris before the inevitable fall.

Andy Lau plays huge Hong Kong film star Dany Lau – a fig-leaf anagram that provides the first of a handful of laugh-out-loud moments. At the territory’s annual film awards, an outwardly sporting, inwardly fuming Dany is corralled into accepting the best actor award given to his rival nominee Jackie Chan – similarly fig-leafed as ‘Chen’ – who did not even bother to turn up for the ceremony. If ‘Chen’ can get a statuette for playing a peasant, Dany reasons, so can he.

Against the advice of a long-suffering personal assistant and best friend substitute played engagingly by Pal Sinn, Dany accepts a role in a film by artsy director Lin Hao – a role that, in this meta-satire about today’s media metaverse, could only be taken by Ning Hao himself. To get into a foreign festival, Lin explains, a Chinese film needs to be about “cotton padded jackets”, just as a French film should be about “red wine and romance”. So it is that Dany finds himself all padded up, with a goatee and farmer’s tan, in a mainland agricultural province, shooting a sentimental story of everyday people.

There is a certain diffidence, even discomfort, in Hong Kong megastar Lau’s performance here - a brittle fragility in his account of an arrogant, out-of-touch star who is as tightly sealed in his celebrity bubble as he is in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber he gets his minions to set up for him wherever he travels. Keen to method-act his way into his character’s man-of-the-people mindset, Dany orders his team to check him into his personal equivalent of a hovel – a three-star hotel – but the hyperbaric chamber still follows along.

There is an odd disjunct as these situations pile up, between the film’s overt, even broad comic approach – Dany being chased by an angry pig farmer, or trying to master today’s youth-speak – and the melancholic undertow of a story that is about the end of an era; one in which stars had aura rather than crisis management teams, directors had creative control, and when romantic trysts were not torpedoed by the paranoia that somebody might be videoing the encounter. 

When Dany faces a serious social media backlash, it is because of a video he himself posted, one in which he was so proud of his action-hero performance that he missed the glaringly obvious animal-cruelty story embedded in the footage. (Some viewers may recall that Andy Lau himself was mobbed by fans in China’s rural southwest while shooting the 2015 road melodrama Lost and Love, in which he played a farmer, and that director Ning Hao became the target of an animal abuse controversy when a video of a caged dog was leaked from the set of his previous feature, Crazy Alien.)

There is plenty more for local audiences to unpack – including the many accents and dialects we hear. The rest of us will be playing guessing games at least some of the time, though one sly musical reference – a repeated motif that overtly cites Yumeji’s Theme from the ultimate Chinese festival-pleaser film, In The Mood For Love – should resonate pretty widely.

Production companies: Huanxi Media Group Ltd

International sales: CMC Pictures

Producers: Wang Yibing, Daniel Yu, Winnie Liao, Xing Aina

Screenplay: Liu Xiaodan, Wang Ang, Daniel Yu

Cinematography: Wang Boxue

Production design: Xu Guiting, Zhang Xiaobing

Editing: Du Yuan

Music: Raymond Wong, Russel C J Wong

Main cast: Andy Lau Tak-wah, Ning Hao, Pal Sinn, Rima Zeidan