It’s difficult for me to recall a movie that digs itself out of a deeper hole after a lackluster/off-putting opening to the degree that Chasing Dream. The last effort by Johnnie To, (a startlingly prolific director best-known stateside for his Heroic Bloodshed pictures like Exiled and Vengeance) Chasing Dream’s introductory moments are so immediately frantic and centered around characters so immediately obnoxious that it was with a sudden surplus of dread that I settled in for the rest of the two hour experience. Instead the film finds its groove and becomes an entirely winning blend of music, action, and high melodramatic romance.
Chasing Dream combines two underdog stories for the price of one: There’s Tiger, (Jacky Heung) a reigning MMA champion (who doubles as an enforcer collecting debts for a local gangster who doubles as Tiger’s trainer) who is informed by a doctor that even more fight could leave him permanently disabled, if not dead. The news places Tiger at an uncertain crossroads for the first time in his life, with no clear idea of where he should go next.
Enter Cuckoo (Wenwen Yu). An aspiring singer/songwriter, Cuckoo was left debt-ridden and shattered when her boyfriend stole her music and used it as a one-way rocket to super-stardom. Cuckoo is determined to win a place on the ‘Perfect Diva’ singing show where said scumbag ex reigns as one of the judges, but first she has to settle up with the enormous debt that he left her holding. Tiger is placed in charge of making sure Cuckoo closes the debt, and its not long before the pair begin to push each other to new destinies, or before love begins to blossom between them.
It takes some time before the film truly establishes its tone and level-reality clearly enough for a viewer to truly invest in it. To’s version of mixed martial arts has less to do with UFC than it does the casual physics-mocking absurdity you would expect in a Stephen Chow vehicle, while various backgrounds have all the depth and reality as a random image out of the Speed Racer movie.
But the real hurdle for the film to clear is the characters themselves. Cuckoo and Tiger are both so frantic, and Heung and Yu’s performances are both so manic, that spending even a few minutes watching them feels like a chore, let alone an entire feature film.
(It does not help things at all that Tiger repeatedly semi-jokingly threatens Cuckoo with various forms of assault during their time together. Between this and some of the other outdated stereotypes populating the margins, To has one foot planted firmly in the cultural past even as he is dramatizing a modern age of celebrity and romance.)
Before you can truly write off the film though, To delivers a sequence so captivating and so perfect that it elevates the entire film around it. On the last possible day to sign-up for ‘Perfect Diva’, Cuckoo jumps in Tiger’s car and takes off to audition. Tiger hops in the car alongside her and the pair goes rushing off. The audition goes terribly, but rather than give up Cuckoo sprints off the stage, jumps into the car, and hurries to another audition site to try again, Tiger cheering her along the whole way. Each time she auditions, she changes how she sings her different song, cycling through everything from pop bombast to striptease burlesque before finally arriving at the right approach.
Instantaneously electric in a way that feels like something out of a lost picture show from classic Hollywood, this sequence alone is so perfect that even if Chasing Dream had down-shifted immediately afterward, I could point to this stretch as making the entire endeavor worthwhile.
Fortunately, from that moment onwards Chasing Dream never truly falters. I don’t know if the performances/characters settled down or if I just adjusted to their tempo, but suddenly Tiger and Cuckoo began to read as real people with a real connection even as To continues to happily indulge in cartoon physics and excess.
As in the best underdog movies, the characters’ material/practical steps are woven tightly together with their emotional journeys towards each other and happiness. By the time Chasing Dream arrives at its bombastic finish, nothing feels as important as seeing these two crazy kids figure out their careers and find their way back into each other’s arms.
Part of that formula for any such movie is making sure that the characters live up to the talents everyone claims they have. The moments where Chasing Dream completely severs from even its exaggerated reality and breaks into fantastical song live and die on Yu’s efforts, and she blazes as brightly as you would ever need a star to be.
Heung holds up his end in the various cage match brawls that give the movie its action. To is flexing familiar muscles with these kinds of set-pieces, but he is very, very good at choreographing and staging brawls and physical contests, and Heung sells the hell out of both the pain and exhilaration that a person born to fight experiences in the ring.
Chasing Dream’s ambitious melding of genres and its embrace of whipsawing tones and frenzied stylings can be a lot to digest, no question. But beginning with the audition run and then over and over again throughout its robust runtime those elements align in exuberant fashion. It probably won’t replace those Heroic Bloodshed movies as anybody’s definitive Johnnie To movie, but Chasing Dream ultimately shrugs off early missteps and delivers an utterly delightful time at the movies.