In 1984, Christopher Guest and company refined and co-opted the "mockumentary" genre, and for over 20 years others have tried and failed to copy it. Some forgettable examples include Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), The Big Tease (2000) and Confetti (2006). Last year Sacha Baron Cohen finally did it with Borat, but that's another story; if Guest's troupe stamped their handprints on the mockumentary, then that goes triple for the "mock-rockumentary." No one, not even Cohen, can crawl out from under the shadow of This Is Spinal Tap. At this point, it's like re-doing Citizen Kane.
For his directorial debut, American-born Hong Kong movie star Daniel Wu decided to make a documentary about a terrible boy band, but rather than tread upon sacred Spinal Tap territory, he and three friends actually formed a terrible boy band, recorded music and went on tour to conjure up material for this film. Of the four members, Wu, Conroy Chan, Andrew Lin and Terence Yin, none could dance and only one, Yin, could sing (he had a short-lived career as a pop star in Taiwan).
Together they became Alive, and the movie became The Heavenly Kings, which had its North American premiere at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival. Wu's celebrity is one reason his ploy worked; this is not a project that just any old up-and-coming director could tackle. Born in San Francisco, Wu moved to Hong Kong in the mid-90s to become an actor. He quickly achieved stardom, winning a Golden Horse award for his performance in New Police Story (2004), also starring Jackie Chan. (He also appeared in Jackie's Around the World in 80 Days remake the same year.)
Part of the genius of Wu's approach is that it's impossible to separate just what was made up for the movie and what might have been a real by-product of their escapades. A ridiculous fashion designer charged with coming up with costumes for the boys is probably false, but what about all those rabid fans with Alive materials covering the walls of their rooms?
From this inspired beginning, however, Wu eventually discovers that there's no place to go except into sacred Spinal Tap territory. We get the expected embarrassments, fights, breakups and ego trips. Characters experience dreamy reveries in the form of cartoons (very cool, but somewhat misplaced). Some of these scenes play out with plenty of laughs, such as the hideous band-costume scene. The wine-sipping designer explains that his latest creation is inspired by African rainforests. The comment passes unnoticed until one of the band members wonders aloud, "Are there rainforests in Africa?"
By the third act, however, the film bogs down under the "personal" relationships of its band members. Wu asks us to care as band members storm out in a huff and disappear, waiting to hear the right encouraging words that will bring them back to the limelight. Sometimes the tone just isn't quite right. After one particularly mediocre performance, the band members return backstage, excited from the rush of the show. But an angry conflict immediately erupts over a missed step in a dance routine. By creating this character tension, Wu almost draws attention away from the idea itself; it's like throwing water on the party. Picture Spinal Tap and their deadpan, confused response to the botched "Stonehenge" number, and you'll get the idea of how the scene could have played.
And so it takes a bit more than a literal reading to get anything out of The Heavenly Kings. When the band fails to generate any notice at the outset, the group decides to release a single on the web and then hold a press conference, blaming the record company for leaking the carefully guarded song too early. The resulting "scandal" puts the band on the map, although no one really ever talks about the song itself, or whether it's any good.
In another scene, a group of executives gathered around a table announce that they're hiring fans for the group's first concert. Hiring fans? The group members have never heard of such a thing. The frightening thing is that these people probably exist in real life. The joke is that one of the group members decides to hire a dozen or so fans just for himself.
Even if his story and the quality of laughter is mixed, Wu's satirical tone is just right. He lashes out at the entertainment industry with just the right amount of amusement and without anger; after all, this is his playground. The Heavenly Kings will probably make more sense to audiences in Hong Kong, where the entertainment industry is more ruthlessly and cynically controlled and marketed. Wu even includes funny and revealing interviews with real-life stars like singer/actor Jacky Cheung (Bullet in the Head, Once Upon a Time in America). But American audiences familiar with Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, N'Sync, the Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block, Michael Bolton, Kenny G and "American Idol" will get the general impression.