Mismatched Couples (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1985)

This movie did something that I never would have expected. It surprised me and made me question one of my long held opinions about the Hong Kong martial arts film genre of the eighties, nineties, even up to recent releases. Hell, it changed a great deal of my feelings about Hong Kong film in general.

To be specific: Mismatched Couples made me a fan of Donnie Yen.

This sounds unfair, and it is. I really failed in giving good ol’ Donnie a fair shake. His physical skills never failed to impress, and he boasts a physique that belongs in a Chang Cheh movie from yesterdecade. I never doubted those things. And Donnie Yen has artistic ambitions, with his directorial efforts, action choreography, and even a good role here and there. And in my defense, I did acknowledge a noble effort from Yen in The Lost Bladesman (Alex Mak and Felix Chong, 2011).
My first exposure to Donnie Yen, his early directorial efforts like Ballistic Kiss (1998) and Legend of the Wolf (1997), colored my view of him, if anything. They came at an odd time in Hong Kong cinema and feature some camera work and editing that I loathe. And Donnie’s action choreography lingered in a sort of odd experimental period here. It’s difficult to describe, but I never liked it, and so I never liked Donnie.

But, wow. Wow.

Mismatched Couples is the most eighties movie ever made. It also marks a shift in director Yuen Woo Ping’s filmography. His previous film and Donnie Yen’s first role, Drunken Tai Chi, was something in the vein of the highly creative and extremely odd cycle of films that began with 1982’s The Miracle Fighters. It’s also incredibly fun.

The movie opens with a montage of Donnie Yen dancing. Just, let that one sink in. And good sweet Krishna those dance moves are epic silliness. He sticks his finger in an electric socket and dance-convulses like he’s getting shocked at one point.

The movie proper starts with Donnie Yen waking up, then going back to sleep after killing his cuckoo clock with a dart gun. Then his radio turns on, the DJ playing some “Disco Rock” to wake up sleepy Hong Kong, and Donnie dances his way into his clothes.

Donnie plays Eddie, presumably a college student who lives above a diner with his Big Sis, Ah Ying (Wong Wan Si) and kissing cousin Stella (May Lo). Eddie doesn’t help out a lot at the diner, for which Ah Ying scolds him. He prefers to hang out with his attractive classmate Anna (Anna Kamiyama, presumably a Japanese actress) and has an ongoing, passive-aggressive dance feud going with “Colorful Punk” (Mandy Chan). He also has to deal with some outright cockblocking from Lynn, Anna’s beefy BFF (a very fit Chan Lai-Win, in her only credited role).

Eddie runs into a down-and-out opera performer named Mini (Yuen Woo Ping) while being pranked by Lynn (if one could call attempted murder a prank). Mini is starving and has no money, so he follows Eddie to Colorful Punk’s outdoor dance party, where we get to enjoy scenes of Mandy Chan breaking. Mini is about to chow down on a whole roast chicken, but Colorful Punk catches him and says he must dance if he wants to eat.

Mini busts out a monkey kung fu form, much to the pleasure of the party goers. Colorful Punk picks up and leaves, so Eddie brings him back to his home, thinking that he could work as his sister’s assistant and teach him kung fu (which he already knows, apparently, so this is not a real plot point). After a bit of very silly not-quite flirtation between Mini and Ah Ying, which goes rather poorly for both of them, a prolonged slap stick sequence in which Eddie and Stella try to hide Mini’s presence in their home, and a vote on whether or not he can stay, Ah Ying relents. Mini is the new employee at their restaurant.

Keep in mind, this is a Hong Kong movie, so all that is just set up for a bunch of loosely assembled vignettes. Donnie fights over Anna with the gwielo, Kenny (Kennny Perez), who treats him like a waiter when he first meets him. They have a tennis match with Donnie using a bicycle as his tennis racket, which is one of the most absurd sequences in motion picture history. Their feud eventually comes to a point when he and colorful punk attempt to give him a laxative at Kenny’s birthday party, which leads to a dance off -- the second most absurd sequence in motion picture history, but also one of the funniest and most entertaining.

The other running non-plot is Eddie’s fight with a “champion fighter” played by Dick Wei. He doesn’t even get a name, from what I remember, but he meets Eddie at the gym, where he displays his physical prowess in an attempt to embarrass Lynn. “If men can do it, so can us women” she announces. Eddie and Mini use a number of tricks to make her look bad and Eddie look good. Why this is necessary is beyond me, but it offers an opportunity for some sexist humor, which is always a good time.

But the fighter played by Dick Wei mistakes Eddie for a top fighter because of the display. So he demands a fight. They have an excellently choreographed and filmed fight scene to end the movie.

What I might have failed to get across with all that description is just how much fun this movie has with pretty much everything. The whole cast looks like they’re having an absolute blast with the all of the silly scenes, and it is infectious. For real, the whole thing is compulsively watchable. I’d say its easily within my top ten Hong Kong movies.

And part of that is because it’s a very sweet-natured movie. Nope, it’s not the break dancing or the fight scenes (there’s really only one, the extended fight between Donnie Yen and Dick Wei) or the pretty girls (May Lo is stupidly cute) or even the physical comedy. My favorite part of Mismatched Couples is the romance between Mini and Ah Ying. Yuen Woo-Ping is totally perfect as Mini. He’s actually a very capable actor for this sort of role, and not just because of his looks, although they help. Yuen manages to hit the sympathy button with his facial expressions more often than he has any right to; Wong Wan Si was a veteran actress who has the fairly difficult job of being something of a ball-buster while still conveying warmth and winning the audience over. She succeeds, which means that the audience can’t help but cheer for Yuen when he’s doing his best to win her over. And it works especially well because these two are not the typical movie couple. These are two older actors who are hardly in their pretty years, if they ever had pretty years to begin with, and they aren’t the leads in the movie. But Yuen allows just the right amount of time for their scenes to play out. It’s spectacular how well he pulls it off, given that it plays out in between some really overblown comedy sequences. Credit.

And Donnie. Man. Who would have thought that Donnie Yen could look so damn happy? Like the Yuen Woo-Ping/Wong Wan-Si relationship building, it’s freakin’ adorable. Not to take away from the value that some people place on the intense, testosterone fueled Donnie Yen that would later become the Donnie Yen that we all expect. That’s great too. But happy-stupid Donnie is just about the most fun you can get in a Hong Kong movie of this vintage outside of happy-stupid Jackie Chan.

Special mention to the music. The original music in the movie was supplied by an artist named Chyna. I can't find any information on her, but the theme song is as dated as it is fun. 

Mismatched Couples is a substanceless movie. It’s cheap and silly. It has no real plot. And it is wonderful. The perfect sort of movie for a boring Sunday afternoon with a few friends who enjoy things like break-dancing battles and mildly sexist humor and pure sweetness played without a hint of cynicism or irony. In other words, Mismatched Couples is just plain wonderful. I love it love it love it.

And yeah, I even like Donnie Yen, a whole lot, just because of it.