Honest cop Tsui Dai Chun (Hu Jun) is recruited into a secret government organization and assigned to safeguard China’s national secret: K1 (Alex Fong), a handsome, high-tech, crime fighting super-robot programmed with a social conscience. The mismatched duo lay low in Dai Chun’s home village where K1 becomes a heavy hitter at the local police precinct, using his cyborg super-powers to solve one-hundred and one unsolved cases. He also wins the heart of bespectacled lady cop Zhou Su-Mei (Betty Sun Li), whom Dai Chun has secretly been in love with for years and who has yet another admirer in the form of bucktoothed schoolteacher-cum-police computer expert Mr. Jiang (Ronald Cheng with comedy dentures). But K1 discovers a default in his system programmed to shut him down should he ever fall in love.
Mo lei tau is a highly popular, uniquely Cantonese subgenre of wacky fantastical comedies, usually released in cinemas to coincide with the Chinese New Year, and writer-producer-director Jeff Lau is their king. His encyclopaedic knowledge of classical Chinese literature, love of pop culture in-jokes, witty wordplay, and eye-catching visual style born from his background as a graphic designer, infuse his movies with a wholly unique flavour. Often likened to anime in terms of their imaginative production design and zany humour, a Jeff Lau movie typically begins like a Zucker brothers spoof then gradually turns serious with an array of romantic and philosophical asides. His last effort, The Fantastic Water Babes (2007) became a casualty of the ridiculous furore over star Gillian Chung’s nude photo scandal, but Lau has bounced back with this sci-fi action comedy he himself claims as Hong Kong’s answer to Spider-Man (2002) and Transformers (2007).
While Jeff Lau’s magic touch has not entirely deserted him, Kung Fu Cyborg: Metallic Attraction is a dishearteningly sluggish effort. Viewers have to put up with a lot misfiring, sitcom-level gags before they get to the mind-blowing robot action, while Lau’s usually disarming moments of pathos and romance falter thanks to weak scripting and a strangely diffident cast. Cantopop star Alex Fong - who, in a typical Lau pop culture riff, has been styled after Jude Law’s art deco matinee idol Gigolo Joe in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) (a movie that was bigger in Asia than the west) - is a lacklustre leading man but most surprisingly, Betty Sun Li - who was wonderful and stole the whole show in Painted Skin (2008) - is so tepid she’s barely even there.
Some gags do work, including a memorable quip about how the proliferation of cheap Chinese knockoffs means nobody in this future year remembers Bill Gates or Microsoft; a character practicing his transformation powers by turning into a tin of black bean sauce and a baby’s bottom; Dai Chun accidentally shot with a “motion suppressant” leading to the world’s slowest kung fu fight (and a sly dig at The Matrix (1999)); and a most unexpected love duet between Hu Jun and Eric Tsang (familiar to English speaking audiences overseas as the portly triad boss from Infernal Affairs (2002), he’s best known as a comic actor in Hong Kong), who plays the loopy scientist behind the whole robot research programme.
The movie really wakes up once renegade robot K88 (Jacky Wu Jing - cast against type) arrives on the scene with a mission to steal a rare form of plutonium and create himself an unlimited power source. “If God created humans the way they created robots, shouldn’t we question our creators the way they question theirs?” asks K88 of his troubled colleague, as the story suddenly morphs into a metaphor about free will and an oppressed underclass seeking freedom. Both this and an almost casual remark about government misusing technology to create weapons instead of medicines are messages that somehow snuck past mainland Chinese censors.
Or maybe they were just dazzled by the duelling robots. The special effects are cartoonish but very impressive and befitting the tone as robots morph into motorbikes or race cars and sprout huge arsenals of heavy weaponry. Crowd-pleasing highlights include an anime-styled sky duel where the antagonists morph into giant flying warrior-robots; a shipyard of junk that transforms into an awesome mechanical behemoth; K-88 summoning an army of triad warriors to do battle in a sort of old school versus high tech face-off; and the climactic arrival of a simply jaw-dropping, skyscraper-sized robot turtle-monster/battle tank. The plot takes interesting detours as a major character is killed and reborn as a malfunctioning cyborg and K-88 becomes K-1’s spiritual mentor so Jacky Wu Jing can show off his martial arts skills (which begs the question: why wasn’t he cast in the lead?), but remains bogged down in tedious romantic misunderstandings.
However, the film throws a real surprise by having the heroes sidestep a climactic duel to the death and although the romance never quite grips, its tragic conclusion proves genuinely sad.