Tang Sen (Bai Ke), the son of a recently deceased property developer, is commanded to travel to India to retrieve his father’s will. He is also told to take along with him Wu Kong (Wang Baoqiang), an orphaned martial artist who lives in a run-down shack surrounded by monkeys. Together they are pursued through India by mercenaries working for Sen’s corrupt Uncle Lee, and encounter various allies along the way including Sen’s resentful ex-lover, Jing (Liu Yan), and a chubby assistant named Zu “Piggy” Tianpeng (Yue Yunpeng).
Some foreign films are immediately easy to understand. Others take a bit of work, and maybe a few explanations. Buddies in India is a comedy road trip, but it is also a tenuously loose adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en – popularised to Australian children of a certain age by the television series Monkey. The novel saw the monk Xuanzang (or, if you were a child of that certain age, Tripitaka) travel across China and India to obtain a series of sacred Buddhist texts. He was accompanied in his travels by the Monkey King Sun Wukong, the pig god Zu Bajie and the water spirit Sha Wujing.
Familiarity with Journey to the West is by no means a requirement to watch Buddies in India. It does provide a bit of context to the film, however, which can be helpful because it is a particularly chaotic and nonsensical movie.
There is a specifically Chinese genre of movie comedy. It’s called “mo lei tau” in Hong Kong, where writer/director Stephen Chow has made an entire career out of it through such comedy classics as Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle and The Mermaid. It is a genre that relies on odd non-sequiturs, dialogue that doesn’t match the on-screen action, weird mash-ups of genres and source material – this film kicks off with a superhero-versus-martial artist fight, for example – and textual references that are going to fly over the head of an international audience. I am not going to pretend that I understood or even noticed all of the riffs and gags in Buddies in India. On the other hand I can confirm it is wonderfully odd, extremely patchy, but regularly laugh-out-loud funny movie.
The film is the directorial debut of comedic actor, Wang Baoqiang. He seems to adopt a scattershot approach, resulting in scenes that drag interminably wedged up against ones that pop off the screen. There is an awful lot going on, so even when the film does appear to falter it only requires 30 seconds before something strange and funny is happening again.
Wang also proves himself a capable action star, in a series of martial arts sequences that are shot in a very early 1990s Hong Kong style, including the use of extensive wire work and wide-angle lenses. He also plays the most deadpan character in the whole film, acting as a central point around which the rest of the cast can indulge in some near-criminal over-acting.
It is difficult to describe Buddies in India as a good film. The narrative is too haphazard, and the production standards often let it down a little. It also appears to be set inside a weirdly tokenistic version of India that is trapped in a perpetual state of festival celebrations. (The setting is there, rather oddly, to promote China’s One Belt, One Road policy to India – that one you can look up for yourself.) Ultimately there are still plenty of great laughs to be found in this movie, and you can pretty much guarantee it will be the weirdest movie you are likely to see in any given month. I think it is always worth taking the risk.
This review was originally published at FilmInk.