End Game (Ren chao xiong yong)

China/Hong Kong (2021) Dir. Rao Xiaozhi

“I need to be myself/ I can’t be no-one else”

Those were the first words we heard Liam Gallagher sing when Supersonic heralded the arrival of Oasis in 1994 and almost 20 years later they are apropos to this Chinese/Hong Kong remake of a Japanese black comedy, which has also been remade in Korea!

Down on his luck actor Chen Xiaomeng (Xiao Yang) is heavily in debt and his career is moribund, and can’t even hang himself without failing. He visits an exclusive public bath, arriving at the same time as the suave Zhou Quan (Andy Lau). As Quan makes his way to the bathing area, he slips on the wet floor and is knocked out cold. During the chaos, Xiaomeng picks up Quan’s locker key and leave his key in its place.

Xiaomeng is bowled over by the charmed life Quan lives and out of guilt, decides to find Quan and confess but upon learning Quan has amnesia, Xiaomeng opts to continue the ruse, secretly paying Quan’s medical bills. Meanwhile, a confused Quan return home to the hovel that is Xioameng’s flat to try to piece his life together again believing this is his lot. Then Xioameng gets a phone call that changes everything.

Usually when discussing remakes, the form is to make comparisons between the original and the copy; in this instance, it is eight years and over 2,220 films ago that I saw the Japanese parent film Key Of Life, so there will be less of that this time round. However, I can readily point out this there has been a complete cultural overhaul of the story to fit the Chinese sensibilities, as well as the substance of the presentation to make this a mainstream hit.

End Game – taken from a Samuel Beckett play – is very much a Lunar New Year film, a commercial attempt to get people to spend this celebration at the cinema. Having Andy Lau, also a producer of this film, on board doesn’t hurt either, and the revised screenplay co-written by director Rao Xiaozhi picks the finer points of the original story and moulds them into something locally accessible.

From what I recall, Key Of Life was a dour Japanese indie comedy that relied on nuance and deadpan humour, whilst Xiaozhi leans far more into belly laughs and contrivance than pathos. It is certainly interesting to see the story interpreted and reworked to fit a different cultural diegesis, with the commercial aspirations over artistic ones being the deciding factor.

One major difference is the role of the main female lead – in Key To Life, Kanae was an uptight 30-something who decides to marry before her father dies; here, Li Xiang (Wan Qian) is media company CEO and single mother to 12-year-old You (Wei Zhihao). The trajectory of this relationship is obvious, and although a few near misses are teased, it plays out as you might expect, with lashings of crowd-pleasing clichés thrown in for good measure.

Meanwhile, Xiaomeng is living it up on Quan’s wealth, repaying his debts to the shock of everyone, but had he looked a bit harder beyond the affluence, he may have discovered Quan’s real job. We already know – the film opens with Quan stabbing a man to death. Yes, Quan is an assassin for hire. He receives an invite to meet Quan’s client female gang boss Wang Yanhui (Huang Xiaolei), who doesn’t know what Quan looks like.

She wants Zeng Jiurong (Cheng Yi), the girlfriend of Quan’s victim at the beginning, to be his next hit. Hiding behind shades to disguise his fear and realisation of the mess he is in, Xiaomeng agrees, secretly hoping he could blag his way out of it, but after meeting the pregnant Jiurong, he decides to help her escape. At the same time, Quan has taken over Xiaomeng’s acting gigs and to his own surprise, is rather good at it.

Where the film differs greatly from its Japanese predecessor is turning the acting aspect into a plot device to carry the final act showdown with Wang. This is not as cheesy as it sounds, with a couple of twists to prolong the violent climax, which after a bloated middle section of twee domestic melodrama, this picks up the pace and renews interest in the main dilemma of the plot.

It essentially boils down to two men playing roles that aren’t themselves, and in turn discovery who they really are, but gain plenty from this experience. The secret behind the twist of why Quan is a better actor than Xiaomeng is more congruent to this telling of the story, and is pushed to its logical conclusion; Xiaomeng’s arc pertains to escaping from reality and finding out how real life can be more dangerous than fiction, morally and emotionally.

As mentioned earlier, this a much glossier presentation than the Japanese original, and the narrative changes feel dictated by this, as if Xiaozhi feared the audience wouldn’t settle for anything less. I doubt they had seen the original to compare to but even then, one can tell when a film has been giving an extra layer of sheen for the sake of it. This also leads to pacing issues making the 2-hour run time a little excessive, with implicit parts made needlessly explicit.

Beyond the glitzy veneer, Andy Lau is typically great in shifting gears from sophisticated killer to humble layman trying to restore dignity and purpose to his assumed flawed life, although believing he can pass for Xiaomeng’s age of 33 is a stretch even Lau’s youthful looks can’t compensate for. Comedian Xiao Yang gets to have the most fun as Xiaomeng living in Quan’s shoes, whilst Wan Qian affords Liang some agency by avoiding being an overt token love interest.

Certainly meritorious for not being a carbon copy remake, End Game is enjoyable, but gets a little lost when ironing out the rough edges of the source material in search of mainstream appeal.

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