Those Were the Days (Dick Cho Kin-Nam, 1997)

Between 1995 and 2000, six different Hong Kong films used the same official English title. “Those Were the Days” indeed.
It seems odd to me that this particular Those Were the Days would be so under-seen. I’d think the presence of Shu Qi would be a selling point. But the film’s subject is rather arcane to most western viewers, whose familiarity with Hong Kong films usually starts in the seventies and very often ends there to boot.
Those Were the Days boasts an inspired premise. Wong Ching Wai, a famous “post-modern” HK film director, attends an awards ceremony and reunion in honor of the region’s old Cantonese film industry. He then proceeds to insult the honored guests, saying that the sixties were the “dark ages” of Hong Kong film. The God of Movies takes exception to his remarks; as punishment, he sends Wong back to the sixties. The God of Movies instructs Wong that he must make a film that at least one person actually enjoys if he wants to make it back to the nineties.
Law Kar Wing as Kwan Tak Hing; The genuine article on the right (courtesy of Kung Fu Cinema's Electric Shadows)
Wong finds himself in a studio, lassoed into acting as an extra in what is obviously a Wong Fei Hung serial shoot. After screwing up a take, a mortal sin in a time when films were made with a single camera and shot entirely in masters, he gets chased around the studio. After hiding in a dressing room, he stumbles into a fast friendship with up-and-coming Cantonese actors like Lee Kei, Tse Yun, Ching Bo Chu, Siu Fong Fong, and Walter Ngau Tat-Wah. Wong, with his knowledge of the future, manages to push his new friends in the direction of success, with the help of his VCD player and pirated movie discs.
The little details the movie captures are part of its appeal. (Image courtesy of Electric Shadows)
It’s pretty obvious that Wong Ching Wai is an analog for Wong Kar Wai, and that Ching Bo Chu is Connie Chan Po-Chu and Siu Fong Fong is Josephine Siao Fong Fong. Depending on how familiar the viewer is with the breadth of Hong Kong cinema, the humor is either baffling or uproariously funny. Everything from wuxia serials (Buddha’s Palm in particular) to “Jane Bond” films to Wong Fei Hung episodes gets parodied ruthlessly, as do the actors that appear in them. Hong Kong actors of that era developed signature mannerisms and inflections, which the film explains in irreverent and highly unlikely ways.
Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee as Connie Chan Po-Chu. Good casting, I think.
And if 60’s era gets parodied ruthlessly, the parodies of Wong Kar Wai’s films are even more viciously funny. When Wong gets his chance to direct, we’re treated with Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, and Ashes of Time (!) done in 1960’s style.
Shu Qi as Josephine Siao Fong-Fong.
But for all of that, the humor is really of a gentle and sympathetic sort. As a character based comedy, Those Were the Days is much too broad and silly to be taken seriously. The characterization, from both the script and the cast, is done entirely in short-hand. It’s very slight, but as a parody, it’s so dead on that for the initiated, it works.
The casting is inspired, to boot. Dayo Wong dons dark glasses, a cigarette, and an attitude for the role of Wong Kar Wai. Cheung Ho-Yee, Shu Qi, and Monica Chan look great in sixties attire. Francis Ng as Patrick Tse is at his usual hammy best. And in one of the few performances that nears mean-spirited, Lee Kin-Yee (a dude) as Lydia Shum stand-in Fei Fei goes even further over the top than growling, scowling Law Kar-Ying as Kwan Tak-Hing.
The look of 1960's Canto-serials is pretty well replicated.
The only thing I wished for was the presence of the actors being parodied. Even without that, this is the sort of referential nostalgia that is rarely done well. Those Were the Days offers little for the casual fan of Hong Kong cinema, I think. It was made for an audience that grew up watching the films of Chan Po-Chu and Walter Tso in the theater or on HK television. But for those of us who willingly watch un-subtitled VCDs to catch glimpses of that bygone era, Those Were the Days is the best kind of loving tribute.
And Wong Jing gets skewered, which, in spite of my unabashed love for Kung Fu Cult Master, is just lovely. And did I mention the sixties fashions? Yeah.

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