The story of the Three Kingdoms (三国) is one of my favourite Chinese classics — the brilliant strategies employed by wise men, the playful deceits of generals, and conflict between noble and evil make the story among the most interesting and entertaining in Chinese literature. And while I have watched numerous “serious” portrayals of the series, including Red Cliff, I have yet to see a parody of it — until now.
Chinese comedy director Jeffery Lau brings together a crew of actors who, while not part of the “Four Dan” actress of China and are not Korean pop stars, nonetheless deliver a surprisingly hilarious and well-executed Three Kingdoms experience. Starring Ronald Cheng (The Four, The Truth About Beauty) as Zhao “Zilong” Yun, Sun Li (Fearless, Painted Skin) as a Rose Fairy, and Huang Bo (Black and White, Police Story 2013, Black and White “Dawn of Justice) as Zhou Yu, Jeffery Lau manages to leverage both the comedic skills of his cast alongside their more serious, dramatic acting capabilities.
Just Another Pandora’s Box (a.k.a. Once Upon a Chinese Classic) tells the story of the Battle of Red Cliffs, where the Sun-Liu alliance faced off against Cao Cao’s newly-created naval forces. The plotline is roughly identical to that of the Red Cliff movie by John Woo (which happens to be among one of my personal favorite movies), albeit with the addition of a small plot twist — the protagonist, Zilong, is actually a bandit from the Ming dynasty who is mysteriously transported back in time to the Eastern Han dynasty, when the Romance of the Three Kingdoms takes place, after he unsheathes a magical sword. This also sets upon him the Rose Fairy, who promised to marry the man who unsheathed the sword so she follows him back in time.
As one would expect in a parody, a hilarious comedy of errors ensues when Zilong delivers Liu Bei’s son (and the heir to the Shu Han throne) to Cao Cao rather than back to Liu Bei’s encampment. From then on, Zilong is faced with a number of combat trials where he instantly acquires god-like fighting skills and alternates between a hero on the battlefield and attempting to abscond at night.
While the plotline is nothing noteworthy, it is particularly amusing to see each scene in Red Cliff parodied in a different way, with the humor often bordering on the vulgar. Later on, the film quickly descends into the absurd, in a typical rendition of the Hong-Kong-created style of mo lei tau (无厘头) which focuses on incredibly impossible and anachronistic plot devices. The best possible comparison to Just Another Pandora’s Box would be Flirting in the Air — another favorite Hong Kong comedy of mine which uses nearly-vulgar and anachronistic plot devices bordering on the absurd to induce rolling-on-the-floor laughter.
However, the difference with Just Another Pandora’s Box is that the story it chooses to parody is in fact a classic of Chinese literature — wrought with oft-quoted mini-stories such as “grass boat borrows the arrows ( 草船借箭). Thus, it is difficult for a lay viewer without the cultural background of not only the original Red Cliff which this film parodies, but also the original story of the Battle of Red Cliffs as told in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, to understand why the plot should be funny at different times and truly appreciate the nuances of the film. While the slapstick humor may induce some light chuckles, the true, deep-seated laughter only emerges when one can understand the historical context behind the film.
Just Another Pandora’s Box then, is rather similar to the internet phenomenon of Polandball — absolutely hilarious for the geopolitically informed, but not only lacking in comedic value for the lay viewer, but almost bordering on the offensive. Nonetheless, Just Another Pandora’s Box is an excellent film for those who have some knowledge of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or for those who also want to watch Red Cliff, it is an excellent accompaniment.
Just Another Pandora’s Box (Chinese: 越光宝盒)—China. Directed by Jeffery Lau. First released March 2010. Running time 1hr 32min. Starring Ronald Chen, Betty Sun, and Huang Bo.