‘Late Night’ and ‘Dying To Survive’: Using the comfortably familiar to tell timely tales

AUGUST 10 — This past week has more or less been all about Hobbs & Shaw, a spinoff of the Fast and Furious franchise, in Malaysian cinemas and presumably all over the world as well. 

Of course I caught it on the first day of screening here, and I’m more than happy to report that it’s every bit as funny as a movie aimed at combining the comic talents of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Jason Statham is expected to be, and it’s every bit as over-the-top thrilling as any of the Fast and Furious movies have been since Tokyo Drift.

So when it comes to a big budget blockbuster successfully pulling off all the expected big budget blockbuster moves, I’d say that Hobbs & Shaw passes the test with flying colours, guaranteeing its paying customers a good time and pleasing the more discerning viewers with its rock steady filmmaking craftsmanship. 

It is, after all, helmed by David Leitch, one of the directors of the first John Wick movie and also helmer of Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, whose filmography makes him tailor made to direct something like this.

As fun as Hobbs & Shaw is (I’ll admit to enjoying a lot of the preposterous elements in the latter Fast & Furious movies, from Tokyo Drift onwards, and am giddily hoping for one of the future films to feature car chases in space), it was a small film opening with limited screenings on GSC International Screens that I was most excited to see last week, Late Night starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling.

So I’ll be writing about that lovely little film alongside a Chinese film I just saw, Dying to Survive, which swept last year’s Golden Horse Awards with three wins and scored US$453 million (RM1.8 billion) at the box office.

Late Night

An article I read about this film made it sound like a variation on The Devil Wears Prada. Thankfully I was already sold when I knew about the basic plot and the fact that Mindy Kaling (of The Mindy Project fame) is in it, and wrote it, so I didn’t bother to watch its strangely “off” trailer (which would’ve definitely discouraged me from watching the movie had I seen the trailer the first, yes it’s that “off”) until after I saw the movie and marvelled at the comic gem I had just witnessed.

The story’s basically about female late night talk show host Katherine Newbury (a superb, Oscar-worthy performance by Emma Thompson) and new writer Molly Patel (Kaling, excellent as always), a diversity hire because Katherine has been accused of “not working well with women”, and their adventures together (and separately) as the whole team tries to increase the ratings for Katherine’s show, which has steadily dropped in the last 10 years.

What makes Late Night such a gem is twofold — first and foremost it’s a sterling example of the workplace rom-com/comedy, as exemplified by predecessors like Broadcast News, The Apartment and The Devil Wears Prada, with a non-stop barrage of jokes, one-liners, punchlines and memorable put-downs courtesy of Kaling’s hilarious script. 

But even more impressive is its second layer of excellence, in which Kaling’s script expertly and subtly uses the comfort and joy of the familiar workplace rom-com/comedy formula to deliver a film about and for all sorts of minorities.

The “diversity” here is not just about an Indian-American walking into a writers’ room full of white males, but it also touches on diversity in terms of gender, class and even age. 

I’d say this is definitely one of the most “woke” films I’ve seen from mainstream Hollywood this year, and definitely one of the best ones from the not very long list of woke Hollywood films from the last few years. And not only is it woke, it’s also pure comedy gold. Just don’t watch the trailer beforehand.

Dying to Survive

As I mentioned above, Dying to Survive, whose box office sweep totalled almost US$453 million, making it the third highest grossing domestic film in China last year, will not raise many eyebrows if it’s one of those standard issue Chinese box-office champs like a wuxia film, a Chinese New Year comedy, or an action flick, but it’s actually a socially conscious comedy-drama, which makes its monster success quite remarkable.

Even more remarkable is the fact that it was based on a very recent true story, of Yu Long, a chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) patient who made the headlines for importing a counterfeit and cheaper Indian version of Glivec, the main drug for CML treatment, which costs a bomb in China and was not covered by the health care, making it unattainable for most CML patients in China.

For the film, the fictionalised character is called Cheng Yong (comedy star Xu Zheng), a struggling divorcee running a little shop selling Indian health supplements who stumbles upon the cheap generic Indian drugs for CML (called Glinic here) after being approached by a CML patient asking for his help to import the drugs (illegally, of course). Encounters with more CML patients or people with CML patients in their family leads him to start this adventure purely for financial reasons, at least as first.

As this is a fiction film, of course it’ll be about how this character goes from doing it for pure greed to actual empathy and kindness, which director Wen Muye pulls off admirably well, throwing in just the right amount of comedy, and tugging at our heartstrings at all the right moments. In fact, this plays more like an excellent South Korean comedy-drama than a mainland China comedy, which is a very, very good thing in my book.

This being a domestic film from China, of course it’s only starting to make its presence felt around the world this year, and I’m glad I took the chance to see it. You should too.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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