Movie Review: A Chinese “Back to the Future” with People’s Republic Twists — “Give Me Five (Gee, ni hao)”

Novelty alone is worth something at the movies. And there’s plenty about “Give Me Five” that makes it a cinematic unicorn.

Comedies from China are rarely imported. A comedy with a whiff of “Back to the Future” about it, with a young man traveling to the past to ensure his parents meet and mate and make him is pretty novel.

And there are all these People’s Republican touches — a company welding contest staged with Party-approved hoopla, strained mockery of Hong Kong Cantonese pronunciations, abortion, dementia and suicide as jokey subplots and an ungrateful son who seems happy his demented, suicidal dad may never wake up from a coma.

“Give Me Five (Ge, ni hao)” is sentimental and silly, romantic and maudlin, dark and somewhat daft. Whatever its initial inspiration and intent, there’s something equal parts amusing and atonally bizarre about the finished product.

A 30ish e-game training academy entrepreneur (Yuan Chang) copes with his widowed, mercurial dad (Xiang Wei), who suffers from Alzheimer’s now but who frankly “never liked me.” Dad’s moods swing from forgetfully pleasant to raging and judgmental. All it takes is a birthday request for cash for his birthday so that son Xiao can marry his longtime girlfriend to bring out Dad’s generosity and his fury.

It’s no wonder Xiao isn’t all that torn up when the old man jumps off a bridge into a river. He furiously tries to shake him out of his coma with “We can’t AFFORD to be hospitalized (in Mandarin with English subtitles)!”

But going through his father’s things back home, the son stumbles across his late mother’s diary, and an odd copper ring. He’s never known how his mother died, and never will as his father has Alzheimer’s. Slipping on the ring changes that.

Xiao Wu finds himself back in the factory gym where he meets his spirited, smart and outspoken Mom, Lu Chunli (Li Ma). Wouldn’t you know it? That’s the day when she was supposed to meet Wu Hongqi, his Dad, leading to them falling in love and marrying and having a boy. Damned if Xiao, magically appearing in the women’s locker room in 1986 — “Wicked rogue!” — didn’t foul that up.

Pulling the ring off, he’s back in the present where he sees her diary entries change. His existence depends on him fixing this interference in time, which will also allow him to get to know the mother he never met and understand the father who “never liked me” and lies in a coma.

The most charming scenes have this stranger who is actually their son struggle to make the match between the boring, charmless engineer and the opinionated go-getter factory worker who has a secret crush on him. One scene has Wu, crushed because his previous girlfriend is cheating with a boorish Hong Kong capitalist (Bing Jia, pretty funny), but unable to figure out this other cutie has eyes for him.

Xiao encourages and coaches her — “Your happiness is my concern.” — and nags him. “Stop being such a LOSER!”

Xiao ends up borrowing a busker’s guitar to serenade them and close the deal.

Another “trip” back has the son seeing his mother heroically take on all challengers in a regional welding competition, complete with Chinese Communist iconography (big red flags, propaganda poster poses), workplace safety issues and selfless devotion to duty.

The script has several engaging episodes that reveal his family’s story to the son, which change his attitudes towards the parent he knows and doesn’t get along with, and the mother who gave him his fighting spirit. Naturally, all this changing history and changing it back goes to his head.

There are laughs and giggles in the wedding Xiao finds himself officiating and the origin story of the rings, including one that triggers all this time travel.

The performances aren’t bad, and it’s easy to see why Li Ma has been a fixture in Chinese comedies for years.

But this sentimental, sweet and romantic voyage crashes into the rocks in the third act with bizarre turns that lean into Chinese self-sacrifice so hard the indoctrination is the least grating thing about it, and all the added supernaturalism in the world can’t rescue it.

Still, if you’ve never seen a Chinese “Back to the Future” inspired dramedy, the sheer novelty of “Give Me Five” should at least pique your curiosity. It certainly piqued mine.

Rating: unrated, Chinese chaste

Cast: Li Ma, Yuan Chang, Xiang Wei, Bing Jia

Credits: Directed by Luan Zhang, scripted by Tianyi Dong. A Well Go USA release.

Running time: 1:51

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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