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Capsule Reviews

Heavenly Kings    (2006)
Yes, for those who have seen the movie and still wonder The Heavenly Kings is a real mock documentary, a surprising and rare film genre within the Hong Kong cinema industry, usually laden with silly comedies, tearjerkers and frenzied action flicks. Those who haven’t watched yet should be prepared for serious awe and mind games as the form of the film is a tad disturbing.

All started when (real life) actor Andrew Lin had an idea to create a fake HK boy band, called Alive, with his real life friends Daniel Wu, Terence Yin and Conroy Chan. The main objective was to infiltrate the music industry and shed light on its darkest secrets. The project dragged on and in a nutshell, after a few years, it became a kind of documentary on the inner workings of the music industry called The Heavenly Kings and directed by Wu. The film with a rough edge and a real-TV feel follows the six-month venture of Daniel Wu and his mates, Conroy, Terrence ad Andrew. They play themselves trying to become the next hot thing for real.

-- Might contain spoilers --

More than a Cantonese version of This Is Spinal Tap, The Heavenly Kings exposes local obnoxious practices or at least confirms some open secrets of the music circle. Supposedly, such secrets could be extrapolated to the film industry.

The first half of the movie follows the lads working on getting a record company deal, making an EP and globally creating buzz around their act. From what they encounter and what we see emerge a series of tactics devised over the years by the entertainment industry people. Read a series of guidelines to enable anyone to gain access to success. No talent required here as long as there is enough nerve and bluff involved.

First, one needs not to know how to sing to be a pop singer in HK. Nowadays, sound engineers have at their disposal a wonderful tool called Audio Tune, which makes granny’s expectorations sounds like Pavarotti’s vibratos.
Second, to finance their music video (MTV is the term employed in HK), the acts should make money first, by accepting endorsements for instance. So they fill their piggy box in with ad money so as to shoot their own MTV to promote their music. Not the other way round. It is counter-intuitive but it’s all about creating a buzz and selling an image before selling music.
Third, a singer in HK has to be able to dance or at least pretend he/she can.
Fourth, look is paramount and a display of ridiculous and so called tailor-made design costumes on stage leads the audience to believe they had good value for the expensive tickets they purchased.
Fifth, the media can be manipulated, used and abused, and lied to. It doesn’t matter, as “most media in HK don’t check their facts” (as Terence Yin said in our interview) and they just want a topic to write about. If a lie is repeated constantly it becomes a truth, we learn.
Sixth, it is common practice to hire the services of professional fans - for as little as HKD 500 per fan - for special events and live shows.

After the band exposes these strategies one after the other it becomes rather evident that record companies are in the game to make money. That we knew. But it’s clear too that they are no one’s friends and they will blatantly try to rip off artists. Usually the contract terms are ridiculous such as a 10-year binding deal with a 50 per cent commission fee. Companies claim they will invest a lot in the artist over the said 10 years, hence the 50 per cent, while actually sponsors will be paying for most of the expenses. The contract needs to be signed on the spot, of course, not time for reflection is allowed.

The above points constitute the first part of the film and provide some entertaining, shocking or even mortifying moments, such as when the Alive members try some so-called easy dance steps or when a stylist attempts to sell them his silly outfits for their show. Here the four artists genuinely try to step in the music industry and film the process to share their findings.

The second part of the film delves more into the psychology of each member and elaborates on the whys, adding an extra layer. This less descriptive and more emotional part helps the viewer to empathise with the four singer wannabes. Indeed, a whole documentary on the subject in its most usual form would have been tedious. It’s obvious at this stage that The Heavenly Kings is on the fence between a fiction feature and a documentary film.

To add more style to the enterprise, some stylish animated interludes made by an artist called Ko Fai appear every so often. They convey the mood and feelings of each member in specific situations. It is purely visual but reveals much more than any ‘real life’ situation shot or recorded dialogues. These intermissions are a stark contrast in style with the video-shot documentary sequences.

This part is a departure from a first half that had a more investigative/documentary approach. The Alive members then appear as more human and easy to relate to. That said, Wu, the director and not the actor, stressed off camera to his friends that they should come across as extreme versions of the images of themselves the local media feed members of the public. So Terence Yin is irresponsible and a party-goer who has a weakness for the weaker sex. Conroy Chan is just a fat untalented guy known for being ‘the husband of Josie Ho’ (heiress to the Ho empire of casinos in Macau). While Daniel Wu is a control freak. The four guys play themselves, but it’s not really themselves; they play a role adapted from their real live and that has been scripted.

Mixing the documentary with more drama and injecting themselves into the subject they investigate blur the boundaries between reality and fiction even more. This mixture can sometimes cast doubts on the genuine intentions of the film-makers and simply on the truth being told here. Yet, every so often, some fragments from serious, as in real and truthful, interviews with respected members of the entertainment industry are injected throughout (with singers Jacky Cheung, Miriam Yeung, Nicolas Tse and Karen Mo; and with producers/music writers Paul Wong and Jun Kung) and they legitimate the group discourse. These interviews root the film discourse into the reality, or a reality, of the industry. Phat Chan’s and Kim Chan’s smart editing fuses all these elements together to offer a film wherein any truth revealed seems to be THE truth.

Everybody felt for this. After watching the film journalists left the theatre angered and flabbergasted as they realised they’ve been had, tricked at their own game. They had been used to launch the short career of Alive. But the game of manipulation orchestrated by Wu and his friends - all overseas educated Chinese who undoubtedly learnt to think outside the box - is also a game of manipulating, double-guessing and outsmarting the audience. Wu’s film brings the audience face to face with their own gullibility. How much truth are we told and how come it all look so real and believable? After the first incredible revelations, can the film-goer, who now understands he was cheated by the entertainment organizations for years, believe what the film has to say?

Despite all his scheming, Wu also achieved self promotion and managed to cast all his co-stars and himself under a different light. They touch the audience who in turn relate with their persona --real or manufactured, we can’t really tell anyway.

So real documentary or fake fiction, which is it? With this film Wu deservedly pocketed the HK Film Award for Best New Director, because cinema is manipulation and Wu has achieved a coup. “Who is manipulating who?” becomes the question du jour.

More info on the film can be found in our Interview with Terence Yin.
Thomas Podvin 1/26/2009 - top

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