In America, doing what Andy Lau does in Hong Kong film industry satire “The Movie Emperor” would likely net him an Oscar nomination. Or at least an MTV Movie Award. Or maybe just the admiration of his peers, considering how few stars are willing to poke fun at their own image, much less entertain the question of what might happen if their fans were to turn on them tomorrow.
Reteaming with “Crazy Stone” director Ning Hao for an ultra-polished, good-sport parody of A-list vanity, Lau plays Dany Lau — not quite himself, but a megastar of roughly his own stature. The movie is loaded with inside jokes, but like French series “Call My Agent,” it should have no trouble translating around the globe. Between Lau’s international standing — bolstered by roles in everything from “Infernal Affairs” to “A Simple Life,” plus a Cantopop singing career — and the script’s deft way of contextualizing some of its best jokes.
Dany Lau should not be read as Andy Lau so much as an amalgam of various top Hong Kong stars, including Tony Leung and Stephen Chow, all of whom share one thing in common with Hollywood heartthrobs: Everything they’ve strived so hard to build could be snatched away in an instant. That possibility has never seemed more intimidating than it does in the age of social media. Dany has no business managing his own profile, which leads to a series of easily avoidable mishaps.
That may sound like fodder for an easy-target sketch comedy, but Hao aims higher, shooting the film in the style of a crisp, meticulously composed Ruben Östlund movie like “The Square.” “The Movie Emperor” is cinema, designed to be screened on the biggest possible screen, as DP Wang Boxue constructs each shot the way Jacques Tati might have: from such a distance that each location starts to feel dehumanized and absurd — as when Dany attends the Hong Kong Film Awards.
At what appears to be the actual kudocast, he’s not only snubbed for best actor, but subjected to the indignity of accepting the trophy on behalf of “Jackie Chen,” who didn’t even bother to show up. In Hong Kong, as in Hollywood, actors are celebrated for “serious” roles, and Dany’s mistake (he thinks) is that he hasn’t played a peasant in a self-important art-house movie. “In Chinese films, it’s all about cotton padded jackets,” explains director Lin Hao (played by Hao) at a wardrobe fitting where Dany tries on the uniform of stereotypical salt-of-the-earth Chinese farmers (essentially the safer version of the “Simple Jack” joke in “Tropic Thunder”).
Dany should have recognized this new part was patronizing (festivals may flip, but “sticks nix hick pix,” to quote a classic Variety headline), just as he ought not to have solicited product placement from an electric car company for such a project. But driven by something between commitment and a deep-seated inferiority complex, Dany doesn’t stop there. He locates a genuine mainland farmer and researches his mannerisms for maximum authenticity. Dany rejects a rig that simulates horse riding, insisting instead on doing his own stunts, and he even goes as far as to adopt a pig.
Of course, every step backfires in a big way, to the point that Dany’s being canceled by animal rights activists over the horse situation (that plot point lands awfully close to what happened to Hao after video surfaced of a dog being mistreated on his film “Crazy Alien”). His half-hearted attempt to apologize on a celebrity talk show only digs him in deeper. Off-camera, he has even more problems. Dany’s discreetly trying to divorce the wife (Kelly Lin) he swore to secrecy — lest his fans lose interest — while attempting to date a young female promo director (Rima Zeidan).
In a running gag, Dany is terrified of being filmed unawares, so every time he sees a blinking red light, he overreacts, which leads him to smash the windshield of a random van whose dashcam sets him off. “The Movie Emperor” doesn’t take a position on AI, but virtually all other new technology conspires to oppress Dany, from the autonomous hotel robots to a fitness app that’s constantly reminding the health-conscious star to exercise. Little by little, these annoyances pile up until such point that his whole life seems to be in freefall — like a pig dropped from a 43rd-floor balcony.
By the time a battle royale breaks out on the set of his Chinese peasant project, Hao has so successfully melded lowbrow humor with the film’s otherwise respectable tone that he can get away with such insanity. One of his cleverer strategies involves letting the camera linger on something upsetting in the frame after a scene has wrapped, like news reports of an actual disaster or a sketchy colleague (Pal Sinn) hitting on a younger female assistant. Dany Lau’s so self-involved, he’s oblivious to such “real world” issues, but “The Movie Emperor” has more on its mind, making it one of the year’s savvier satires.