Nothing in global cinema is more culturally specific than comedy. I have written in the past about the Hong Kong comedy style known as ‘mo lei tau’, a sort of nonsensical and deliberately silly combination of wordplay, non-sequitur, and slapstick most famously expressed by screen legend Stephen Chow in the likes of Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung-Fu Hustle (2004). Less famous, but just as deeply steeped in the mo lei tau tradition, is director and actor Jeffrey Lau. His film 92 Legendary La Rose Noire is a fascinating and frenetic comedy which, while rather opaque for international audiences, still packs in enormous entertainment value.
Butterfly Wong (Maggie Shiu) is a children’s novelist who, upon getting unintentionally involved in a murderous drug deal, leaves behind a note claiming to be 1960s spy character Black Rose. She hopes it will confuse police and stop them from investigating her. Instead it attracts the attention of the real Black Rose’s apprentices (Wong Wan-sze and Fung Bo Bo), as well as lovestruck police detective Keith Lui (Tony Leung Ka-fai).
Tony Leung is rightfully heralded as one of Hong Kong’s finest ever actors, and it is proof of his versatility to see him amiably charm his way through this comedy with as much effort and talent as he has applied to more serious fare like Ashes of Time, Election, and Our Time Will Come. He holds the unique achievement of having won Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards four times across four decades – and in the 1990s he won it for 92 Legendary La Rose Noire. He embraces the absurdity of the piece beautifully. Maggie Shiu (PTU, Breaking News) likewise commits herself wonderfully, although it is a shame her character feels somewhat sidelined during the film’s second half.
The real stand-outs, however, are Wong Wan-sze and Fung Bo Bo as Yim-fam and Piu-hung, apprentices to the Black Rose. They are a delightfully odd couple – Yim-fam has fierce anger management issues, while Piu-hung appears to suffer from a recurrent amnesia that leads her to believe Keith is her father. Their comic timing is impeccable, and both nail the tone of Lau’s screenplay. Fung was awarded Best Supporting Actress at the HKFA for her efforts – the film received another seven nominations, for Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Costuming, Score, and Supporting Actress for Wong and Teresa Mo (who plays Butterfly’s best friend Wai-kuen).
The quality and critical acclaim belies the film’s extremely limited production values; like many pre-handover features Rose Noire seems budgeted on the proverbial smell of an oily rag. It is testament to its comedic merits that such limitations honestly do not seem to hold it back. It is also clear that, as a non-Hong Kong viewer, I have missed out half of the jokes. The Black Rose is an actual spy character from Yuen Chor’s 1965 film Hei Mei Gui, in which two sisters create the persona to engage in Robin Hood-like burglaries across the city. Rose Noire does not simply work as absurdism – it’s clearly also a carefully staged parody.
Comedy is a very personal genre, and what works as humour in one culture does not always align with what works in another. Chinese language comedy is often a particular challenge from not Chinese-speaking audiences. I feel I am progressively gaining a taste for it: the puns may not land for a foreign language speaker, but the absurdism certainly does. If you warmed to Stephen Chow’s breakout comedies, Jeffrey Lau’s ouevre – including the likes of The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, A Chinese Odyssey, and La Rose Noire – are a pretty great second destination.