AKA: Pancake Man
Director: Da Peng
Writer: Da Peng, Su Biao
Cast: Da Peng, Mabel Yuan, Liu Yan, Sandra Ng, Eric Tsang, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Yue Yunpeng, Yi Yunhe, Liang Chao, Pan Binlong, Cui Zhijia, Qiao Shan, Deng Chao, Amber Kuo, Xiaoshenyang, Song Xiaobao, Liu Xiaoguang
Running Time: 113 min.
By Paul Bramhall
A Chinese comedy that features Jean-Claude Van Damme sounds like an unlikely combination, but that’s exactly what Jian Bing Man gives us. Much of the attention, well ok, all of the attention from action cinema web sites has been on Van Damme’s inclusion in the movie, so his role is as good a place to start a review as any. Let’s just get it out of the way now, Van Damme’s screen time clocks in at less than 5 minutes, so those wanting to get a healthy dose of the Muscles from Brussels may want to adjust their expectations accordingly. He appears for the finale, so it’s a satisfyingly action packed few minutes, but he’s far from the main attraction.
So, with only a few minutes of Van Damme goodness, what exactly does that leave us with? The whole production is essentially one big meta-comedy, starring, directed, written, and produced by Da Peng. Peng is a name that won’t be familiar to many, and understandably so. A comedian by trade, despite featuring in a handful of other movies, his claim to fame is hosting a variation of the US style Late Shows online, and his show has a significant cult following. In 2012 Peng famously got into a spat with US celebrity Conan O’Brien, when the American chat show host pointed out that the animated intro sequence to Peng’s show, was identical to that of his own. Brandishing Peng’s show a rip-off, the two exchanged banter over the course of several episodes, with Peng apologising for the faux pas, and O’Brien going so far as to create a new intro for Peng’s show and offering it to him as a gift (which was actually used!).
For his directorial debut, Peng plays an exaggerated version of himself, a popular actor who’s tired of constantly being cast in loser roles. An opportunity presents itself when a gangster, played by Liang Chao, offers him a significant amount of cash to make a movie himself. The only catch is it needs to star an actress who the gangster has a crush on, played by Yuan Shanshan. In the movie (this meta stuff is going to get complicated) Shanshan isn’t the best actress in the world, and has been stuck with supporting roles and bit parts, so she plans to go to Hollywood where she’ll audition for a production starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. So Chao’s offer is a win-win situation – Peng can finally make the movie he’s wanted to make, and Shanshan gets the leading role she’s been looking for so won’t need to go to Hollywood.
While celebrating at a nightclub though, Peng gets ridiculously drunk, and ends up on the street throwing up in the gutter. When a female fan recognizes him and attempts to kiss the worse of wear star, Peng throws her off, and everyone ends up on the floor in an ungraceful heap of drunkenness. Unfortunately, the whole incident has been caught on various revellers phone cameras, and thanks to the power of social media the video soon goes viral, described as Peng assaulting one of his female fans. Peng’s grand plans to call his many popular actor friends to feature in his movie suddenly turn sour, as thanks to the video nobody wants anything to do with him, so instead, he assembles a ragtag cast and crew and attempts to make a movie using the new technique of ‘secret filming’.
If the above description sounds familiar, it’s because it’s kind of been done before. I never expected to write this sentence in my lifetime, but Jiang Bing Man is basically the Korean movie Rough Cut, meets the Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger. Surprisingly, the premise works, and earns a number of genuine laugh out loud moments. As can be guessed from the title, the movie that Peng decides to make is Jian Bing Man, which roughly translates to Pancake Man, a Chinese snack food that many street vendors sell. Peng announces the movie as “A Chinese super realistic action, romance, science fiction comedy”, and he’s not far off. Like many of the kung fu movies of old, he ends up making the script up as he goes along, often amusingly changing the story based on circumstances and wherever they happen to be.
Further blurring the lines between reality and fiction is a whole host of Chinese and Hong Kong stars who turn up at various points with hilarious results. The cameraman Peng hires is actually a paparazzi photographer, and reveals that he and his network always keep track of where stars are going to be and at what time. After revealing that Sandra Ng is in Beijing to film a new movie, soon Peng and his crew are huddled behind some bushes in a park where Ng goes for a nightly jog, with the plan to capture a scene that will have a group of thugs threaten her, only for Jian Bing Man to come to the rescue. It’s scenes like this which are reminiscent of the similar scenarios that play out in Bowfinger, and Jian Bing Man also pulls off the same concept with aplomb, managing not to feel derivative at any point.
The character of Jian Bing Man himself is a source of particular amusement, as his weapons consist of the ingredients to make the pancakes. His habit of bursting into each scene by throwing a pair of eggs is a refreshing addition to the overcrowded superhero genre, and he’s not too shabby with a sauce bottle either. Of course things don’t go smoothly for the whole duration, and when Peng accidentally foils a convenience store robbery thanks to thinking that it was part of his movie, he quickly finds his popularity back on track, and the movie deals start pouring in again. This leads to him pulling the plug on the Jian Bing Man production, but with his ragtag cast and crew putting so much of their hearts into it, the question boils down to will he turn his back on them when they’ve done so much already, or will he finish the job?
Of course the answer is pretty obvious, but still the story hits the right notes. It’s the age old tale of someone who values nothing more than money and fame, having to lose everything to realise the value of friendship and having people in your life that you can count on. While some of the comedy does get a little broad, the vast majority of it is on point, transferring surprisingly well to a western audience. There’s no doubt that being familiar with many of the Chinese actors and actresses that have brief roles in the movie will definitely add to the audiences enjoyment, but even not knowing who everyone is shouldn’t cause too much of a detriment to the viewing.
The filming of the finale for Jian Bing Man also doubles as the finale for the movie itself, as Van Damme appears playing himself playing the villain of the piece. He gets a decent fight scene in against Peng, throwing a few kicks, but is clearly doubled for a dramatic fall. However he makes the most of his few short minutes, making an impact and even delivering the final line of the movie, which rivals his final line as Xander from Enemies Closer (which was the only good thing about that movie). For Hong Kong cinema fans though it won’t be Van Damme that brings the biggest smile to their face, but rather a cameo appearance from four members of the original Young and Dangerous crew – Ekin Cheng, Jordan Chan, Michael Tse, and Jerry Lamb. The final minutes make for a nostalgic nod to Hong Kong’s golden years, which also feature Eric Tsang directing the scene, and it’s satisfyingly choreographed from an action perspective, with a nice motorbike stunt and some entertaining double handed gunplay.
Jian Bing Man succeeds in showing that commercial Mainland Chinese productions do have the potential to have a wider appeal beyond just local audiences. As a tale of a director trying to make a movie and hoping that no one notices him doing it, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air. Now, who do we need to speak to at Marvel to get Jian Bing Man incorporated into the Marvel Universe?
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10