Everyone’s a suspect in this bizarre adaptation of J. B. Priestly’s play.
“You’re the worst. You have lousy hair and are greedy”
An Inspector Calls is a moody, psychologically-thrilling play filled with intrigue and escalation. It’s a staple of Britain’s theatre culture and – as the final shot of the movie reminds us – still taught in schools as part of the GCSE. It’s as much a beloved mystery play as The Mousetrap and its dark, open ending has left generations haunted and uncertain. So naturally, a Hong Kong movie version starring Eric Tsang filled with slapstick and cartoonish elements was the way to go when adapting this for the big screen.
Eric Tsang plays Mr Kau, a businessman and … giant doll factory owner whose daughter Sherry (Karena Ng) is about to get married. On the morning of the engagement party the mood is quickly ruined when the mysterious Inspector Karl (Louis Koo) comes calling, enquiring about the suicide of a young woman named Cindy (or Mavis, or Snow, or May, or Jean). He questions each member of the family, including matriarch Mrs Kau (Teresa Mo in an absolutely wonderful wig), fiancé Johnnie (Hans Zhang) and son Tim (played with complete apathy by Gordon Lam who is staggeringly too old for the role), who has little interest in the family business.
This adaptation of An Inspector Calls is a star-studded comedy in the same vein as countless other big, showy Hong Kong comedies, and the cast reflects it immediately. Most notably is Tsang, whose face is almost guaranteed at this point, and Teresa Mo – who’s had her fair share of big silly comedies like It’s a Wonderful Life and I Love Hong Kong. If you’re familiar with the style, you know exactly what you’re going into. The question is: is this really the right material?
Much of the slow build-up of the play is replaced with antics and frenetic energy, and you feel like you’re watching the season finale of a TV series you’ve all but entirely missed. Sure, we learn more through flashbacks and dialogue (as we do in the original play), but the whiplash that happens once Karl, his increasingly wacky diary gag and his lightsaber eyes arrive on the scene is enough to take you out of the picture for a brief minute.
Louis Koo barrels in like the third act of a Poirot story and begins hammering all of the information in – to both the characters and the audience. Koo’s performance is daft as hell but the intensity in which he does it is worthy of praise and while it does knock the audience back for just a second, it’s long enough to make you forget just how out of left field everything is. The pacing is absolutely insane, but it’s certainly interesting. It’s just a bit tricky to take any of it seriously, and as a result the mystery side sort of suffers in favour of jokes that, for the most part, aren’t that funny.
But let’s put all of that aside for the moment because honestly, this movie might be worth it just for the reality-shattering Donnie Yen cameo, where he shows up as all four members of a doo-wop quartet. Frankly it’s the best and most wackadoo thing in a movie that’s filled with bizarre visuals and out-of-nowhere scenes. Coming in a close second must be co-director Raymond Wong’s multiple-role cameo marathon where he appears in every flashback, as another character. It’s the sort of fun, stupid thing you expect from this sort of production and it’s during these moments that the cast and crew clearly feel the most comfortable.
If it was any other genre, this would have been a much smoother film. But the way it is, the manic HK comedy delivery doesn’t really work with the source material, and as a result it feels like a worst of both worlds scenario. The cast and the weird stylistic choices save the film massively, but then the convoluted story comes back into play. If more focus was put on the dramatic beats that the play needs, it would have been fine, but as it stands nothing really gels. You probably won’t hate it – there are too many good moments during the entire thing and everyone is having an absolute blast being in this but it seems that the case for An Inspector Calls simply isn’t that great.
Verdict: Shallow in all the wrong ways, An Inspector Calls is decent, but it’s not all that compelling.
Overall entertainment: 5.5/10
Inspectors: 3? 1? 2? Who knows
Donnie Yens: 4/4
Cameos: Plenty. It’s always good to see Kelly Chen
Tim’s Room: Why are there so many pillows?
Bar brawls: Fuck it, just start throwing glassware around the place.
An Inspector Calls (2015)
Also known as: 浮華宴
Directors: Raymond Wong, Herman Yau
Writers: Edmond Wong (screenplay), J. B. Priestley (play)
Louis Koo – Inspector Karl
Eric Tsang – Kau Ming
Teresa Mo – Anson Kau
Hans Zhang – Johnnie Kei
Gordon Lam – Tim Kau
Chrissie Chau – Cindy Cheung
Karena Ng – Sherry Kau
Liu Yan – Yvonne Kwok
Raymond Wong – Everyone else