As meta as it gets, The Movie Emperor (Hong Tan Xian Sheng) stars Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau as superstar Dany Lau, a box-office hero desperate to validate his career with critics. When “Jackie Chen” wins a Hong Kong film award for portraying a peasant farmer, Lau decides to put together his own epic about rural poverty and “fatherly love” as his ticket to film-festival success. Yes, Lau is essentially playing himself in this complex comedy, the closing title at this year’s Busan International Film Festival. What’s more, Lin Hao, the director of the project, is played by the actual Movie Emperor director Ning Hao, whose Crazy Stone helped set a new direction for mainland Chinese comedies back in 2006.

Real-life celebrities (e.g. Tony Leung Ka-fai and Wong Jing) are sprinkled throughout. It’s one of the ways Ning Hao erases boundaries between the real and fake Lau. As his assistant (played with world-weary aplomb by Daniel Yu, one of Movie Emperor‘s producers) reminds him, “You’re in the metaverse now. Keep up.” 

Lau’s character is so rich and privileged that he has lost touch with the real world. From his personal immersive oxygen tank to his limos and high-rise offices, he is cocooned from everyday issues by an army of helpers. Just checking into a hotel requires a caravan of luggage and personal assistants.

Like John L. Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels, Lau sets out to connect with the poor without giving up his luxurious lifestyle. His attempts to research rural poverty are hilariously inept, no matter how good his intentions. When he unwittingly insults a pig farmer, social media turns against him. In fact, everything Lau does backfires one way or another, from the real horse he insists on riding in a chase scene to a date he sabotages through his fear of cameras. Trying to buy his way out of problems only makes things worse. 

The film Lau hopes to make is the kind of rural message drama where evil capitalists exploit a hapless protagonist who is just trying to find a better life for his daughter. (And because it’s a Chinese film, gangsters show up for a martial-arts fight.) Lau dons a hideous wig and wears “farmer” clothes, hoping to win over festival programmers by going earnest. (“It’s been years since they saw a cotton-padded jacket,” his assistant notes.)

The funny thing is: Lau would have no trouble actually playing the farmer role. In the few scenes where we see him act the part, he’s masterful. In another scene he rehearses for an online commercial, wandering through a cluttered set practicing lines. He looks confused and hesitant, unfamiliar with new media. But when the camera starts rolling he delivers a perfect take––in fact he improves on the director’s original concept.

Emperor‘s second half sadly loses momentum, its script painting Lau into a corner so tight there’s no realistic way to extricate him. Instead the writers turn to a satire of social-media influencers, Lau’s project falling to the background.

Ning Hao has a great comic touch, punctuating scenes with visual gags and letting punchlines land without forcing them––case in point Lau delivering a “heartfelt” apology on TV, only to have his teleprompter script fail. Emperor‘s take on filmmaking is honest and rueful, especially when detailing the ways a take can go bad. Revising the script is an exercise in compromising artistic goals. Financing means kowtowing to social-media billionaires. The actual shoot is plagued with last-minute changes, recalcitrant extras, sets that fall apart.

At a press conference before the screening, Ning Hao said he had known Lau for years––the actor even invested in Crazy Stone––but the two couldn’t agree on a collaboration until this project. Perhaps because they know each other so well, Ning Hao can ask Lau to do something quite difficult: expose his fears, his vanity, his weird foibles for laughs. Is the real-life Lau this socially clueless? Does he shrink from cameras? Is he so worried about generating bad publicity that he’s essentially trapped in an admittedly posh, comfortable bubble?

Whatever his problems, he’s still Andy Lau, for decades an icon of Hong Kong cinema. This is his best role in years, and he makes the most of it.

The Movie Emperor screened at the 2023 Busan International Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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