Lock Me Up, Tie Him Down (Wan mei jia qi 168)

China (2014) Dir. Jeffrey Lau

Why can’t people be more honest with each other? This question has been asked since time immemorial yet we can’t help ourselves from continually making the same mistakes over and over from not telling the truth. Then again, the odd white lie has led to fate being kind to some, so is there a happy medium to honesty?

Former actress now housewife He Shaoqun aka Tiffany (Vivian Hsu) returns home from shopping one afternoon to be greeted by a mysterious man dressed in a black hoodie, claiming to have kidnapped Tiffany’s husband, Zheng Guofu (Wang Xuebing). He shows Tiffany a live video of Guofu tied up in a bath of acid with a timer device ready to electrocute him.

To secure her husband’s freedom, all Tiffany has to do is play the role of the dutiful wife to the kidnapper, Huo Ke (He Jiong). Tiffany reluctantly agrees and Huo moves into the apartment, playing hardball and making demands of his newly acquired wife. But Huo underestimates Tiffany’s guile and resolve as she set about figuring out where Guofu is being held as well as undermining Huo at every turn during his stay.

Jeffery Lau is noted for slapstick comedies, his most famous being the Chinese Odyssey series, but, he isn’t limited to just this genre, evident in the oddly titled, tonally shifting Lock Me Up, Tie Him Down, the Chinese title translating literally to the slightly more self-explanatory A Perfect Fake Wife 24/7.

It is for the most part a fast-paced farcical comedy but once the motives are revealed, things get a little darker, showing Lau is capable of tense, shocking drama too. This tonal switch can be a little jarring and is perhaps too effective in exposing the dishonest side of the characters that it almost negates the frivolity of the comedy that precedes it and the mawkish denouement that follows it.

A brief history lesson opens the film, starting with Tiffany’s childhood where a lie ruined her trust in love, then another one later on when she was a struggling actress restored it. We jump forward eight years into the childless marriage, with Tiffany the glam housewife to the hard working company boss Guofu.

Obviously this is designed to paint Tiffany as a vacuous, trophy wife, complete with her sashaying about in a figure hugging dress to go food shopping in, to the annoyance of busybody neighbour Mrs. Chen (Yang Shimin). But the subtext of this tale is how looks can be deceiving and we are about to discover Tiffany is no airhead. Hou Ke’s arrival is sinister and threatening, at least until revealed he is standing on a footstool to intimidate Tiffany.

Hou Ke’s ransom demands are certainly unusual but he foists them upon Tiffany in such a laid back way she feels quietly compelled to fulfil them without a complete explanation, the safety of her husband being her paramount concern. The biggest surprise is that Hou shows no intentions of exploiting Tiffany sexually during this charade (despite a genius plan she has to foil any such activity), keeping physical interactions limited to a single peck on a cheek.

Surprisingly, audience curiosity about Hou’s intentions and motives isn’t piqued with the urgency it should be – or Tiffany’s for that matter – thanks to the distraction of the cat and mouse game being played between the faux couple. Via ingenious tricks usually reserved for experienced police detectives, Tiffany is able to get into Hou’s phone, find his car, and use a series of innocuous clues to find out where Guofu is being held, before putting an audacious plan into action to rescue him.

This requires a lot of suspension of disbelief from the audience as it involves a lot of driving about by Tiffany as well as some risky calculated moves paying off to buy her the time to make these hasty escapes. But it is rather fun to watch, not only strengthening Tiffany as more than a pretty face but also makes her deeply sympathetic for the shocks that await in the second half of the film.

It’s a convoluted turn of events and one that again might make some eyes roll, but the catch comes back to Tiffany being the undeserving stooge in the games of others. Lau is careful to slip a subtle warning sign prior to the big reveal in one of the crazier moments, courtesy of an interruption by Tiffany’s cheating father (Frankie Chan) and hardnosed mother (Kara Hui).

Despite the climax being more suited to a drippy rom-com than a darkly comic caper, the message that comes through louder than anything else is that people are too quick to believe a convincing lie when the motive behind it is deliberately pernicious. Lau isn’t so reductive that he adds a counter balance of how a tiny fib can save a lot of heartache as everyone does it; it’s about knowing when it is right to lie.

For a film so predominantly comical the production values are rather high in embracing modern editing techniques and effects to get the maximum silliness out of a scene, such as the Scott Pilgrim-esque visual augmentations. Yet, the film works best when it relies on the deft performances to keep it moving along, like the multi-person melee inside the apartment with people coming and going at a furious pace.

With a slew of big name cameos and supporting roles from top Chinese and Hong Kong comedians and actors to get all eyes on this film, its crown jewel is Vivian Hsu. She is utterly delightful in the comedic scenes yet, like the protean moods, flicks a switch and hits hard in the dramatic moments too.

Lock Me Up, Tie Him Down might confuse as a title but delivers a tidy, highly enjoyable if slightly implausible comic drama with a pertinent message. For a swift and very busy 94-minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and that’s no lie!