Gordon Liu gives good glower. In the same way that Clint Eastwood's growl communicates volumes in Gran Torino, Liu, who became a star in 70s Shaw Brothers martial arts classics like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Executioners From Shaolin long before being cast by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill, commands the screen in Chandni Chowk to China as an evil, evil villain. As Hojo, a criminal kingpin whose greatest pleasure lies in decapitating rebellious villagers, Liu fixes a determined, menacing look on his face, matched by a steely glint in his eyes and precise, deadly body language. He wields the deadliest head covering since Harold Sakata's Oddjob flung his chapeau at James Bond in Goldfinger.
Liu is the best thing about Chandni Chowk to China, which opens this weekend at more than 125 screens in 50 markets in the US and Canada and has been billed as the first ever Bollywood kung fu comedy. It's also the first production from Warner Brothers India, though the movie, a pleasantly goofy diversion, doesn't seem to go out of its way to appeal to Western audiences.
Akshay Kumar stars as Sidhu, a cook at a fast food stand in Chandni Chowk, the legendarily busy market in Delhi, India. As he cooks rice and chops vegetables, Sidhu dreams of winning the lottery and escaping the humdrum routine of his daily life, despite the admonishment of his adopted father Dada (Mithun Chakraborty) that success in life can only be achieved through hard work. When two visitors show up and urge him to return with them to China so he can find his destiny, he is all too eager to comply.
Of course, Sidhu doesn't know the whole story. The Chinese villagers are looking for the reincarnation of a legendary warrior to save them from Hojo, and delude themselves into thinking that the cowardly, simpering Sidhu is their man. Both the villagers and Sidhu are the victims of the opportunistic Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey), who is drafted as an impromptu translator for the Hindi-speaking Sidhu and Mandarin-speaking villagers.
Chopstick seizes the chance to con his way along on the trip; how he hopes to profit is never made clear, but heroes always need sidekicks. Chopstick is not the only one who takes advantage of the simple-minded Sidhu; charming commercial spokesperson Sakhi (Deepika Padukone) cheats him out of his place in line at the Chinese consulate, earning Sidhu's wrath when he sees her again upon arrival at an airport in China.
But it's not actually Sakhi that Sidhu sees fleeing from the authorities at the airport, spilling diamonds from a prosthetic pregnant belly and leaping over parked cars, it's her long gone, and presumed dead, twin sister Suzy (also played by the former model Ms. Padukone). Suzy prefers to be called Meow Meow nowadays, as it seems to befit her work as a henchwoman for ... drumroll please ... the evil Hojo!
Yes, it's that kind of movie, one where we know Sakhi and Suzy are fated to reunite, but only after numerous near-misses and a string of coincidences bring them together. It's the kind of movie where Chiang (Roger Yuan, who shines in a key role), the father of Sakhi and Suzy (AKA Meow Meow), also long presumed dead, also mysteriously reappears, and plays a key role in the rehabilitation of Sidhu. It's the kind of movie where Sidhu must be rehabilitated, after all, because he's the hero, and no matter how weak, tearful, and fearful he has been, he must learn to be a man, learn courage, and, most important, learn how to avenge the death of a beloved one.
The twist in Chandni Chowk is that Chiang is a Chinese martial arts master and former police officer who married an Indian woman -- who is also long dead, evidently for real, since she never mysteriously reappears -- which explains how he sired two beautiful Indian women. We never learn how he escaped death, but that's not as important as the fact that he went insane from grief. Anyway, once he finally snaps out of it -- a picture is worth a thousand words -- he can train Sidhu to be a terrific martial artist and defeat Hojo in a duel to the death.
Under the direction of Nikhil Advani, the plot unwinds casually over the course of the movie's 154-minute running time, bolstered by a half-dozen musical numbers (by the composing team of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy) and a similar number of martial arts fight sequences choreographed by Ku Huen Chiu, who has worked with Jet Li for years, and recently worked with Stephen Chow on CJ7. The fight scenes make liberal use of wires with assists from CGI, which is in keeping with the general tone of comic fantasy.
On balance, I'm not certain that Chandni Chowk to China will make any new converts for Bollywood, which seems to be one reason for its wider-than-usual release. True, the martial arts sequences are a fresh ingredient, and their presentation here is better than in many Hollywood productions: the editing is not quite so frenzied and the compositions tend to favor showing the entire body, which makes the choreography appear more fluid and graceful. The high-pitched melodrama and melding of genres will be familiar (and probably welcome) to fans of Hong Kong, Japanese, and Korean action flicks.
Still, the sheer length of the running time is an obstacle. Admittedly, I've only seen a relatively small number of Bollywood films, and perhaps greater familiarity would better attune me to the industry's narrative tendencies, but several times I found myself tapping my fingers, waiting for the plot to advance to the next, very obvious point. I couldn't help thinking that a purely Hong Kong production would have wrapped up the whole thing in half the time, with better and more extended action scenes, to boot.
Yet then I'd be denied the pleasure of seeing a couple jumping off a very tall office building to escape the clutches of an evil villain, falling hundreds of feet before the woman opens an unbrella to halt their fall, which leads to a deliriously silly and romantic dance, as the couple implausibly proves to be lighter than air.
Chandni Chowk to China certainly has its faults, but it also contains enough lighter-than-air moments to recommend it.