I have heard horror stories on the quality of John Woo's comedy. I figured he was like John Ford in the aspect that he can use comedy in films but would have more trouble doing a comedy. While I have not seen enough of his farce to make a superlative judgment of his comedic abilities this movie is not a healthy prognosticator of what I can expect in his other "humorous" movies.
I am not a fan of under-cranking. Its jerky motion caused by frame manipulation makes me annoyed especially when it is overused. I do not even like it in otherwise fine films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). In Laughing Times it is used so much that it becomes so overbearingly irritating that if it was not for the sound you were thinking you were watching the movie on fast forward. I was debating whether this was used because silent films were projected at the wrong speed which gave them that sped-up look and John Woo wanted to replicate that or in fact that Woo wanted a Benny Hill style of humor through many of the chase scenes.
Dean Shek Tin is sometimes derided by fans of Hong Kong cinema for his over-the-top demeanor and comedic styling that would have worked well in vaudeville, but have not always translated to later movies. I am more ambivalent than some about his abilities; I have sometimes liked his goofy demeanor in such films as Drunken Master and Fearless Hyena. But never would I have thought of him as portraying Charlie Chaplin. He is gangly, he is too tall, and his humor tends to be very broad. When you think of silent movie actors he is more like an Al St. John than a Charlie Chaplin. While he does overdo his acting several times in this film and his wheezing seems almost to the point of him having emphysema, his mannerisms are pretty close to Chaplin's (though why does it seem annoying when anyone but Charles pretends to be Charles Chaplin). But where I was surprised the most is that Shek is actually quite good at pantomime. In fact I feel that the problems behind the film are because of John Woo's story and comedic timing not because of Dean Shek. That would have been impossible to do since Dean co-owned the production company Cinema City for this film.
Shek plays the oriental Charlie Chaplin (called that in the film), a homeless wanderer who just happens across by happenstance various articles of clothing that make him resemble Chaplin much to the amusement of a passerby who laughs at him until walking into a wall (one of the few funny gags in the film). Charlie spots a beautiful female Chu Siu-man (Wong Sau-man) singing in an eatery for her opium-smoking dad and he glides on in and catches her attention by missing his chair and falling to the floor. He later saves and befriends a little orphan (Wong Wei playing the Jackie Coogan role from The Kid (1921)) who was being chased because of stealing food from a patron.
He later saves the hide of a drunk (Wu Ma) and then accidentally destroys the liquor the drunk stole. Meanwhile the kid gets inadvertently involved with drug trafficking, gets arrested then escapes. However, the villain in charge who is also involved with child slavery (though he is faithful to his wife that he hates) Master Ting (Karl Maka whose eyebrows are the greatest thing in the film) feels he knows too much and should be dealt with appropriately. He kidnaps the kid from the help of two sunglass-wearing (yes before A Better Tomorrow ) thugs who are quite incompetent like everyone else in the film. Charlie's beloved is also sold to slavery. Will Charlie be able to save them with the help of the drunk who also has a vendetta against Master Ting? Will you be able to make it this far in the film?
This was John Woo's first film for Cinema City and Cinema City's first film. He used the pseudonym Wu Hsiang-fei for the Chinese version because he was under contract with Golden Harvest at the time. In fact if this movie did not succeed there would have been no Cinema City which would later make its mark on Hong Kong by creating the ultra-successful and influential comedic series Aces Go Places in 1982. This is a film I really cannot recommend to anyone except those who are looking to complete John Woo's oeuvre and those interested in the influence of silent film on Hong Kong cinema a topic that is vastly underrepresented in cinematic writings. While there are moments that will remind you of John Woo, most obvious is the slow motion orgy of cake destruction which oddly is one of the better scenes in the movie, the movie is just not funny and some of the gags are more gross than funny like the goldfish eating/spitting of Master Ting. Its attempt at pathos throughout the movie never works.
Its name is taken off of Modern Times though originally the English title was Laughing Time for the amount of laughs in the film. In fact there are many gags lifted or done as homage to Chaplin's work. Everything from the boxing referee gag from City Lights, the mechanical gag from The Circus, trying to get a job but being pushed from queue to queue gag from A Dog's Life, this scene also uses a gag lifted from The Pink Panther Strikes Again as well, to a somewhat funny reworking of another gag from A Dog's Life where Charlie is being the arms of a knocked out bad guy to eventually knock out the other bad buy. Some of these gags might seem fresh if you had not seem them before, but I would easily recommend the Chaplin films before watching this movie.
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