Comedy, Films, Hong Kong, Recommended posts, Reviews, Sci Fi / Fantasy, Shaw Brothers

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

3 stars星際鈍胎. Hong Kong 1983. Directed by Alex Cheung. Starring James Yi Lui, Cherie Chung Cho-Hung, David Lo Dai-Wai, Leung Tin, Tam Tin-Nam, Lau Yat-Fan, Fung Fung. 92 mins. In Cantonese/Mandarin with English subtitles. Leave a comment

Shaw Brothers oddity as sci fi meets comedy spoof in a car crash of a movie, but not one without merit…

A rare Shaw Brothers foray into sci fi would turn out to be a disastrous move for director Alex Cheung, a founding member of the Hong Kong New Wave and one of the few to make a decent critical and commercial success out of his early films. Essentially a vehicle for rising star Cherie Chung (Peking Opera Blues, The Story of Woo Viet, Spiritual Love), it’s primarily a spoof of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a whole chunk of Star Wars and plenty of other film references thrown in – and even a couple of jaunty musical numbers! You could dismiss this as a terrible film; the only trouble is it’s the Shaw Brothers – so it looks good, the special effects are pretty decent, and, worst still, some of the jokes actually hit the mark, even now.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star has the sort of plot that sounds like it was written down on the back of a fag packet after one hell of a night out, except you accidentally threw the packet away, and the morning after you’re left attempting to wipe of the smears caused by that late night kebab (and who knows what else). James Yi Lui (Hex Versus Witchcraft, Gee and Gor, Flaming Brothers) plays Eden, ably unassisted by his assistant Colombo (or ‘Konglombo’, played by the gigantic and quirky-looking Tam Tin-Nam), a private eye so despaired that his day job has become little more than debt collecting, he decides to throw himself in front of an oncoming train. Cheung is the ditsy Li Tien Zhen, all set to marry the wealthy heir Mr Kwok (David Lo, Father and Son, Where’s Officer Tuba?, The Scorpion King) until she is abducted by a UFO and finds herself no longer ‘virtuous’ woman she once was. Planning the same fate for herself as Eden, the pair meet, and Eden decides he can finally do some good in the world and find out just who, or what, is abducting these poor women.

With distinguished scientist Dr. Lu (Leung Tin, The House of 72 Tenants, Killer Constable, A Simple Life) unable to help, mainly because of certain chemical serums he’s been experimenting with, there’s nothing left for Eden and ‘Konglombo’ than to go undercover, as women, in the hope of getting picked up – quite literally – by our interstellar philanderer.

Alex Cheung was one of several young directors to emerge from a highly creative and uninhibited period of Hong Kong TV in the 70s, alongside such names as Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam and Allen Fong. Before then the only way into the industry had been to serve as cameramen or assistants at the major studios under their restrictive regimes, but they largely broke the mould. Cheung wasn’t the first to make a feature film, but Cops and Robbers (1980) and Man On The Brink (1981) had been some of the earliest to gain reasonable box office and critical acclaim, and even nabbing a Golden Horse Award for best director on the latter. These films drew ambiguous lines between members of the police and gangsters, particularly in Man On The Brink where an undercover cop finds himself increasingly lost and distanced both from the law he was meant to protect and his own identity, easily laying the groundwork for work for what would come in the 80s by directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam, and more specifically Lam’s City On Fire and ultimately Andrew Lau and Alan’s Mak’s Infernal Affairs.

This success no doubt permitted Cheung the opportunity to take on a major studio project, as many of these directors would to varying degrees of success. In one scene, as Dr. Lu holds a press conference on the existence of extra-terrestrials to a room full of reporters, played by Cheung with cameos from his peers, including Hark, Fong, Alfred Cheung and Allan Fung. As the session quickly turns into a food fight (for no good reason), the directors gleefully enjoying the moment (particularly Hark who always seems to have enjoyed being in front of the camera as much as behind it).

It’s a symbolic moment for Hong Kong film: in just a few short years, they had become (or at least were in the process of becoming) the establishment. They were taking over. And yet perhaps aptly, this scene takes place in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, a film largely considered a flop. Though if the figures recorded on hkmdb.com are accurate, it actually did reasonable box office, it just didn’t recoup the massive (in terms of Hong Kong films) budget of US$10m. Easily there’s an impression here that the scale and various special effects overwhelmed Cheung, with the film taking nearly two years to complete.

The biggest problem with the film is that it largely presents itself as a collection of sketches rather than a flowing narrative. There’s little effort made in connecting scenes beyond the recurring cast, though to be fair that’s hardly uncommon in parody films. We are talking about an era when the height of sophistication was Airplane!, and the reason for that films success was largely sticking so closely to the source material it was lampooning.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star keeps to a similar formula, and interestingly not just the film references, but much of the context, remains Western angled rather than Hong Kong Chinese. When Li Tien Zhen gets her shoe stuck in a pavement grill, her flowing dress recreates the famous image with Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, the commotion it causes creating a multiple car crash like a mini version of The Blues Brothers crossed with What’s Up, Doc?. The same scene ends with Eden pulling his shirt apart like a certain superhero of the time to save her and revealing an emblem beneath – but hang on, that’s not an ‘S’ but an ‘SB’.

Though the humour is very much of its time and easy to be critical of now, the really sad thing is that there are some nice ideas and even solid laughs to be found. The motif of the simple tune of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ nursery rhyme being used to communicate with the aliens much as the five notes did in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s also a lovely nod to the encapsulation of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ on Spielberg’s film as well. When Eden finally confronts our alien on it’s spaceship, it turns into a lightsaber duel that comes to an abrupt end when our decidedly Darth Vader looking villain’s saber goes ‘flaccid’. Along the way there’s even a chance for a Bugsy Malone reference.

Cheung’s skill as a cinematographer is never in doubt. The film looks great, and is beautifully composed throughout. The special effects sequences, though there aren’t as many as the budget and trailer might lead you to believe, are impressively done. In some ways that doesn’t help. Ropey looking effects might have given the film more charm; instead you are painfully obvious where the budget went. If Shaw Brothers weren’t known for sci fi beyond Japanese takusatsu imitations like The Super Inframan, that didn’t mean it was something they didn’t aspire to. Increasingly their wuxia and martial arts films used Star Wars style special effects to depict these powers; horror films of the same time, such as Boxer’s Omen or Seeding Of A Ghost felt like a more natural setting for them.

But there was more to it than that. Seeing the rise of science fiction in the late 70s, Run Run Shaw increasingly looked out for projects to co-finance. In 1981 he co-produced Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid. Now largely dismissed as a British knock-off of Alien (which it kind of is), it was successful at the box office both in the UK and overseas. A year later he would give money more directly to Alien‘s source, producing a film that would become far more iconic, but one that didn’t do particularly well on its initial release (yep, that was Blade Runner). In the case of Twinkle Twinkle, there seems to have been a strategy to make sci fi for a  home audience in Hong Kong, but it wouldn’t be one that worked for the Shaw Brothers.

Despite returning to hazy lines between law enforcement and criminality (and to the Shaw Brothers) with the impressive Danger Has Two Faces two years later, one largely feels like Alex Cheung’s career was irreparably damaged by the project. Cheung continued to make films throughout the 80s and 90s, with Made In Heaven his last film to date as director in 1997. (Though he recently played a fleeting cameo in Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Jungle as a news announcer.) Sadly he has never received the acclaim of other New Wave directors like Hark; a Cheung’s reputation seems more built on his lack of box office success since rather than his actual talent.

And Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is actually an enjoyable movie deserving of a cult following, in some ways watched better a second or third when you can follow the story better. A ‘car crash’ perhaps, but quite mesmerising in its own way…

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is available from YesAsia. Many Shaw Brothers films are now available in HD and SD on iTunes, GooglePlay and YouTube. See the full list of Shaw Brothers movies on iTunes here.

Home media details

Distributor: Intercontinental Video - IVL (HK)

Edition: DVD (2002)

This lesser film from the Shaw Brothers library gets a somewhat less impressive release. Despite the film looking good, the transfer on the disc appears to be a lower resolution and a ratio of 4:3 rather than anamorphic. I highly suspect that it's the same file as used for the VCD, just at a slightly higher resolution. Extras are pretty lacklustre too for a Celestial release.

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Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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