Deng Chao has had a great few months, from starring in Cao Baoping’s acclaimed crime drama The Dead End last summer, to being the lead in Stephen Chow’s record-obliterating The Mermaid during Chinese New Year. In between was Devil and Angel, his second film as a director and a major hit in its own right. It re-teams him behind the camera with Yu Baimei, already the co-director of his previous directorial effort The Breakup Guru and whose script is an adaptation of his own eponymous play, and in front of the camera with his wife in real life (and a hugely popular actress in her own right), Betty Sun.
They play polar opposites: Mo Feili (Deng) is a coarse, illiterate and dogged debt collector who works with a shady self-help guru (Liang Chao); Zha Xiaodao (Betty Sun) on the other hand, is a meek, highly-educated but dorky accountant who goes to that very guru for advice on how better to assert herself. The latter’s prescription is for Xiaodao to team with Feili, the Yang to her Yin, and thus find balance; in reality however, this allows him to have a more efficient debt-collecting team (Xiaodao’s gift for crunching numbers compensates Feili’s illiteracy and short attention span), while still taking his guru fee for ‘helping’ her. At first the eager-to-please Xiaodao struggles to be accepted by the hardened loner Feili, but an unlikely bond is formed as they try to get corrupt businessman Hua (a hilariously deadpan Wang Yanhui) to compensate his redundant workers.
Devil and Angel may be a broad, hyperactive comedy ruled by cartoon logic and carried by overacting comedians, but it’s one that comes with heart and a surprising amount of artistic ambition. The humour is often pure surrealist slapstick, with the tone being set in the opening scene when Feili chases debtors right up Mount Makalu wearing nothing but a shirt and briefs, with icicles coming out his nose, and proceeds to sing in a high pitch to trigger an avalanche in order to catch them. The film is full of these self-contained, almost stream-of-consciouness cartoonish gags, and they’re often both juvenile and quite inspired, peppered with some unexpectedly snappy and droll dialogue. More importantly, they’re properly and fluidly connected by a plot that is nothing exceptional, but at least gives continuity to what could have so easily been a disjointed series of gags.
There are smatterings of action, as Norman ‘son of Bruce’ Law orchestrates a few madcap and ingenious set pieces (witness Feili on the hood of his car on autopilot, shooting henchmen with fizzing out coke bottles). It also helps that the film is a minor visual triumph, shot beautifully and inventively by Max Wang, and effectively fusing Stephen Chow’s dynamic cartoon poetry with an aesthetic of ramshackle steampunk and a quirky cuteness both reminiscent of French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And like Chow and Jeunet have done in the past, Deng and Yu make their film a love letter to misfits, not in a contrived way by which oddballs have to find love and/or win over the world, but with a true affection for the resilience of the outsider.
Both leads embody different sides of social marginalization: Feili, who is sent in blind rages by loud noises, is a loner going crazy from the deafening rattle of what people call progress, while Xiaodao, who was rejected by her mother for not pursuing the sterling US career her multiple PhD made possible, is a martyr of expectations and constantly punished for her honesty. The film doesn’t try to force a love story on them (though feelings are indeed awakened), preferring a ‘mismatched buddies’ dynamic that benefits from the leads’ spotless chemistry. Deng Chao consistently goes over the top, which fits the general tone but can get wearisome after a while, all the more so as the film runs at an overlong two hours. But Deng is gifted both as a physical comedian and as a dramatic actor, and he manages to show his character’s underlying existential pain, while still throwing himself in manic pratfalls in every other scene. And Betty Sun is an absolute delight, again showcasing her comedic abilities after Jeff Lau’s Just Another Pandora’s Box. There’s a gentle goofiness to her performance that’s simply infectious, coupled as it is with a willingness to match Deng beat for beat in the slapstick stakes.
Long Story Short: Though broad, overlong and definitely not for all tastes, Devil and Angel is an often inspired slapstick comedy, as well as a visual treat with heart to spare. ***1/2