The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The 22nd annual New York Asian Film Festival took place between July 14 and July 30. For more information on what you missed, click here.

I do so enjoy it when things wind up getting all Full Circle on me.

Miss Shampoo, a mostly fluffy comedy with some decidedly dark moments, has some surprisingly comprehensive cross-connections with Kai Ko’s Bad Education, the blackly comic thriller that kicked off this year’s festival for me. Which makes it, in more ways than one, a delightfully circular way for me to be closing out this years coverage. They’re two very different film in tone, in goals, and in execution, but in their own way they’re both highly effective pieces of entertainment.

Writer-director Giddens Ko was responsible for The Tenant Downstairs, the gleefully nasty and highly enjoyable closing film of my first ever NYAFF back in 2015, and even when applied to significantly lighter ends, it’s clear he’s only gotten better at playing audiences like a fiddle. With Shampoo, he’s given himself the unenviable task of finding something new and interesting to do in the fields of romantic comedy and triad crime, two genres that have been intertwined so often that even that combination has moldy tropes of its own. But rising to the challenge, Ko has crafted a raucous, laugh filled romantic comedy that find ever more inventive, ridiculous and dirty minded ways to sidestep the usual cliches. It may be only his second time up to bat for the festival, but he still knocks it out of the park.

Baseball, as it happens, is one of the passions of the energetic and (seemingly) demure Fen (Vivian Sung), the other being hairdressing. We are introduced to her as she sculpts the coiff of her trusty mannequin head, and acting as imaginary coach to pro batter Zheng Xuxiang (Bruce Ho). Fen, we will soon find, is not one of those heroines bored with her lot in life and craving danger or excitement. But it’s coming for her anyway, in the form of Tai. And as with all the best meet cutes, this one involves a murder.

A wounded Tai (Daniel Hong) stumbles into the salon, having barely escaped the attack that took the life of his Triad boss, Hsing. Letting him hide out and throwing his would-be assassins off the trail, Fen assumes that will be that. But Tai, being the honorable type, wants to repay her kindness. And now has the power to do so; with the death of Hsing, Tai finds himself promoted to leader of the gang. Which means the responsibility of tracking down the people who ordered the hit and exacting bloody retribution falls to him.

Though in a twist that people expecting more of a plot than they’re going to get might find deflating, the movie is nearly as disinterested in solving this little mystery as Tai himself seems to be; he’s unabashedly smitten with Fen, and almost from the moment their eyes meet, he becomes her number one priority.

Comedy, and some downright ridiculous hairstyling decisions, ensue.

There’s a very amusing meta layer to all this, of course… our leading man want to be in a romantic comedy, while half the cast keeps trying to drag them into a crime drama. And the leading lady would just looooove to be in a romantic comedy, but has a better sense than our hero that gangsters can only pretend they’re not in a gangster movie for so long until the genre comes looking for them.

(And as for the rest? Well, they’re all just trying to get laid)

Mind you it’s hard to argue that Tai and Fen don’t have the right idea, seeing as how the plot, a bunch of jibber-jabber concerning land deals and inner circle conflicts that the movie can’t even pretend to give much of a fig about for more than a couple minutes at a time… not when there are dick jokes to get back to. Ko and the cast commit fully to embracing a sense of silliness. From the visual humor of Tai’s increasingly goofy hairstyles, to a series of introductions that turns into a rake gag extraordinaire, to the films’ hilarious sex obsession, which stays just on the right side of juvenile (if only just), the movie is shameless in its eagerness to show the audience a good time, but never makes the mistake so many movies that try for this brand of humor make: it might have some fun at the characters expenses, but it also has a great deal of affection and kindness towards them. The joke might be on them, but it’s rarely at their expense. And that small but vital distinction allows them to get away with absolute murder.

Not every movie can manage to make the line “I swear on my dick” seem like the most romantic statement in the world.

Few movies would even try, the cowards.

It’s not until roughly the final twenty minutes that the gangster plot really takes precedence, at which point we are treated to some last stage revelations that reframe Tai’s reluctance, and lead us pretty directly into a tense, violent finale. It’s an inevitable confrontation, but all the more effective for spending so much time making the characters out to be such endearing goofs; less than any ideas of grand retribution (Hell, the audience barely even knew Hsing), we simply want the heroes to make it out alive. Which, as anybody who has spent much time in the tonally helter skelter world of Asian genre cinema knows, is far from guaranteed.

There is no discussion worth having about Miss Shampoo that doesn’t focus the bulk of said discussion on the exemplary cast, starting with the leads. Daniel Hong has the look of a typical genre protagonist, which makes it all the more fun to see the ways in which he is willing to look and act like an absolute goof. His delivery on the various sex speeches he gives alone make his casting worth it. And he plays off of Fen divinely.

So frequently, the female half of this kind of mash-up can get short shrift, but as written and as performed, Fen is a more than capable match for all the antics around her. Giddy whenever possible, but grounded when absolutely necessary, Sung sells the role with ease. Never before, and perhaps never again, will the words “Very fake ejaculation” be used as such a profound expression of eternal love and commitment. And it’s hard to imagine all that many actresses convincingly swooning upon hearing it. Such is the skill of Vivian Sung.

The chemistry is so on point from almost the very start that it comes as rather a surprise to both Tai and the audience alike to learn that Fen already has a boyfriend (a juicy cameo by Kent Tsai, de facto lead of the aforementioned Bad Education). But even this is less an actual complication than an excuse for Hong a hilariously overextended stunned reaction that seems to last several weeks worth of screen time.

But while Tai and Fen are undeniably the star attractions here it’s a very generous movie, acting-wise: the entire supporting cast seems to have a contest going to see who can steal the most scenes with the least screen time, and all seem equally delighted when the scene gets stolen out from under them. Indeed, the majority of members on the mob side of the story has less to do by virtue, but, to a man, make a meal of what they get.

Most prominent would be Long Legs (played by Kai Ko from, well…. you know), Tai’s right hand man and the member of the crew who seems most put out by the romance. He seems miffed at not being crowned leader by Hsing, or at least he’s increasingly annoyed at Tai’s seeming ambivalence towards the whole vengeance thing. But while you might think you know where this plotline is going, it takes a number of unexpected, refreshing, occasionally discursive seeming swerves that keep it interesting, not the least of which is a subplot where he gets really into crypto with a NFT-loving douchebro working for one of the other bosses.

If nothing else, there’s an interesting metatextual element in the idea of Ko playing a character that seems to long to be in charge, right before going on to make his own project.

(Who knows which endeavor came first, but Giddens Ko is an executive producer on Bad Education, and it’s not hard to imagine Ko The Younger not having learned a thing or two about balancing tones from his similarly monikered director here)

As the two other main members of Tai’s gang, Emerson Tai and Ying Long-Feng are less prominent, but like everyone else, score major laughs with their antics. In fact, Tai’s flirtation with Guan (Bai Bai), one of Fens’ co-workers at the salon, kind of leads me into my only complaint: there’s not nearly enough of it. Giving off, of all things, an early Yeardley Smith vibe, she pulls a truly impressive amount of laughs with nothing more than a look. She disappears from the movie roughly halfway through, and though there are plenty of laughs to compensate, her offbeat presence and endlessly expressive, endlessly watchable face are sorely missed.

It’s just an embarrassment of riches. Hell, there’s an entire article I could write just on Fen’s family alone. But I’m already running a bit long here.

(Though in keeping with the “full circle” of it all, special shout-out to McFly Wu, last seen as the hilariously baffled gangster in Bad Education, has a small cameo as a cheating gambler who suffers through both bad math and terrible consequences, in roughly that order. Both because it’s a fun little bit and because I’ll take any excuse I can to get to type the words McFly Wu again)

In the end, it is perhaps a strange thing that I’ve written so many words on such a fluffy bit of fun as Miss Shampoo. As the wonderfully meta final line of the film makes clear, it’s a film with little on its mind more than making sure its audience has a good time for two hours. And yet, how many films try to do exactly that, and fall flat on their face? In its success, and in its minor yet personally significant ties to other films that I’ve seen both this year, and starting all the way at the start of my journey in 2015, it is the perfect representation of why I love this festival so much, and why I keep coming back, over and over again. And thus, a perfect note on which to close out another excellent NYAFF.

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