At long last, a raunchy buddy roadtrip movie has reared its head in the Middle Kingdom. Ning Hao’s 2014 comedy Breakup Buddies offers a Chinese-flavored sampling of this genre long familiar to English-language audiences. However, despite its envelope-pushing hijinks and distinct Chinese context, the film still leaves a bland aftertaste.
Breakup Buddies begins when Geng Hao, a middle-aged former singer turned electronics salesman, gets served divorce papers. Distraught, he drinks himself into a hospital, where he stumbles into the care of his best friend Hao Yi. Hao decides that the best way for Geng to get over his divorce is to go on a 3,000 kilometer tour de pussy — the more women he sleeps with, the better he’ll feel! Naturally, Geng isn’t as enthusiastic as Hao about the idea, but tags along nevertheless. The two become a classic roadtrip pair, with Geng as the conservative nice(r) guy and Hao as the rambunctious bro.
Geng and Hao’s trip is a haphazard hodgepodge of various unoriginal American and Chinese tropes. Hao picks up an over-attached one-night stand, while Geng stumbles into the crazed embrace of a potentially underage girl. Cars break down, mace gets sprayed, and many, many, many drinks are consumed. The plot feels like a round of firecrackers; the content of each segment is predictably explosive, but the overall composition stumbles around like a drunken fraternity brother.
Adding to the confusion, throughout the main bro-trip is an independent sub-narrative starring an initially unidentified woman. Though you can easily predict that she will have some relation to Geng, her sub-plot never gets fully integrated into the main story even after that relation is revealed. The film is full of loose ends like this: though it emphasizes that Geng was once a singer, nowhere is this particularly apparent, even when gangsters force him to sing in one scene (maybe actor Huang Bo’s singing voice is just horrible — but they could’ve at least provided a dub). Tonal inconsistency is also an issue. Though drastic shifts in tone are not uncommon in Chinese movies and and oftentimes executed to great dramatic effect, Breakup Buddies simply wavers limply between Geng’s abject misery and Hao’s mediocre hijinks. Compared with something like The Hangover, the movie is somewhat entertaining but not laugh-out-loud explosive.
Despite this, Breakup Buddies was a huge box office hit in China, raking in over US$187.9 million in 2014. This isn’t particularly surprising though — movies like Breakup Buddies are a relative novelty to the Chinese mass market, and in many ways the film was innovative in how it pushed the envelope. The film’s content included homosexual behavior, depictions of prostitution, gun violence, and other rowdy activities long present in American movies but mostly absent from the more conservative Chinese cinematic market. In this sense, Breakup Buddies did well in catering to pent-up local demand. Though its tropes were American, the film deserves praise for integrating them seamlessly into a Chinese context. The film’s scenery and destinations are distinctively — and beautifully — Chinese; when there’s the road to Dali, there’s no need for Route 66.
Nevertheless, for anyone whose tastes are conditioned with Hollywood roadtrip movies, Breakup Buddies doesn’t offer anything too spicy or savory. There may be some value in interpreting it for its Chinese context, but for pure entertainment value there are better options.
Breakup Buddies (Chinese: 心花路放) — China. Directed by Ning Hao. First released September 2014. Running time 1hr 58mins. Starring Huang Bo, Zheng Xu, Zhou Dongyu, and Yuan Quan.