Mere days into the new year, and already we've got a first. Say it loud and say it proud: A Chinese sex farce.
Yes, if anyone still doubts that China is rising, look no further than this frothy descent into the cultural shallows. Always light and (surprise) occasionally bright, Red Light Revolution sets out to shrink the distance between Hollywood and Beijing, to prove that a nation that proudly manufactures 70 per cent of the world's sex toys is capable of expanding its aesthetic horizons to make a sex comedy.
Well, consider the job half done: Sexy it ain't, but, once in a while, you will crack a smile.
The groundbreaker is writer and director Sam Voutas whose personal history – born in Australia, based in China – has him nicely positioned to bridge the East/West twain. Certainly, his choice of protagonist is a comic staple that transcends boundaries: the amiable fat guy, as luckless as he is round.
When we first meet him, Shunzi (Jun Zhao) has just been dealt a double blow, fired from his job and then dumped by his wife. His next gig sees our rotund hero standing in a supermarket aisle beside a slender young woman. Handing out samples of a diet-food product, she's the After and he's the Before.
Of course, this being the new China, opportunity must knock, and does so in the person of a former school chum, a successful entrepreneur who got his start running a sex shop, one of the 2,000 that now adorn the streets of Beijing – apparently, not all of those toys are slated for export.
Encouraged to join the biz, Shunzi finds an empty store, fills it with rubbery products, and throws open the doors. Daylight comes, but the customers don't. Instead, they appear furtively in the wee hours of the morning, flocking in at 3 a.m. to stock up on condoms or to road-test a dildo. "Sex is the only traditional thing left," we're told. If so, tradition awaits the cover of darkness.
Shunzi himself is embarrassed by his adopted vocation, and eager to hide it from his aged parents. His eventual confession paves the way for the first of several comic reversals. Admits the son with a blush: "Dad, I feel like a total failure." Replies the father with a wink: "Son, life isn't a high-school exam." Seems the old couple, who know a thing or two about radical change, are just fine with this latest bloom on the cultural vine.
From there, Voutas uses the shop to poke broad satiric fun at communist officialdom, with suffocating bureaucracy as the primary target. Lacking the required paperwork for his venture, Shunzi wanders aimlessly through the municipal labyrinth, before finally hitting pay dirt in the office that issues this magic document: "The Permit to Find Out Where to Get Permits."
Sure, some of the yuks are laboured and much of the plot lumbers. But the saving grace here is the dialogue which, even in translation, banters amusingly along, powered by an always likeable performance from Jun Zhao. Better still, unlike the Jack Blacks of the screen, he keeps the chubby act in check, serving up his fat man without any economy-size mugging.
So when that old schoolmate challenges him with, "Do you consider yourself a winner or a loser?", his deft response is a delight: "I'd say it's a scoreless tie at the moment." In truth, he does himself and the movie a disservice. As Chinese sex comedies go, Red Light Revolution is definitely one up on the competition.
Red Light Revolution
- Directed and written by Sam Voutas
- Starring Jun Zhao
- Classification: 14A
- 2.5 stars