Killing Me Tenderly
Hong Kong, 1997
Sammi Cheng Sau-Man ... Cindy
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer
Hong Kong takes another whack at Hollywood's The Bodyguard, but with much more satisfying results than the 1994 Jet Li vehicle.
Leon Lai Ming, village chief and bored rural cop, lands his first urban assignment. He thinks he'll be protecting Tung Chee-Hwa, but in fact he must go undercover, as bodyguard for up-and-coming HK Cantopop sensation Cinderella (Sammi Cheng Sau-man). The twist: he has to pretend to be gay, to fit into Sammi's all-gay male entourage. Sammi must deal with the rigours of the HK entertainment world (here spoofed in a goofily satirical vein), complete with a hostile rival singer and a psychotic fan.
Around the standard plot elements of Leon and Sammi's awkwardly blossoming love affair, and the crazed fan's increasingly threatening behaviour, director and writer Lee Lik-chi has built a surprisingly fresh, disarming, and funny film. He patiently, wickedly deconstructs every element of the genre: plot twists (like Leon's return to his village, and Sammi's pursuit) are twisted again, back onto themselves. Lee manages to deploy the conventions of the bodyguard film, put them in almost visible virtual quotation marks, and amusingly subvert them, all the same time. It's a technique polished in his series of films with Stephen Chiau Sing-chi, and it works just as well here.
A light confection such as this needs just about perfect performances, to succeed, and Lee just about gets them, from his two principals. Leon Lai manages almost completely to overcome the burden of his pop-idol persona. His acting captures a certain naturalism and relaxed confidence that he only sporadically managed to achieve in Comrades Almost a Love Story. His faux-gay persona could have been a typical plastic caricature, but seems quite refreshingly subjective (except for an unfortunately uncomfortable "kiss" with Wyman Wong); and his free and easy chemistry with Sammi Cheng is remarkable.
Cheng is the real star of this film. With this sensational performance, she realizes the promise that she hinted at in her two Feel 100% movies. Killing Me Tenderly offers what might be the best leading role debut since Faye Wong's in Chungking Express. Cheng has an absolutely natural screen presence. Without any visible acting "technique", she harnesses a magnetic energy (though more under control than Anita Yuen's) and loads it with fascinating character detail and a seemingly spontaneous line delivery that stands up under relatively long takes. In the world of new HK female screen stars, she's a dynamic "hot" to Carman Lee's elegant "cool", jazzy effortlessness to Karen Mok's prodigious technique, offhand glamour to Gigi Leung's plastic cuteness.
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all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer