Hong Kong Double Feature – The Twins Effect

What’s in a name? Knowing only the genre – Hong Kong action with fantasy elements – what would you expect from a series of two movies named The Twins Effect? Would you, as I did, expect a plot in which two siblings (probably estranged) must come together to discover a shared supernatural power which enables them to overcome some sort of great evil? Would you make the (quite reasonable I thought) assumption that the second movie builds on the world established in the first? And how surprised would you be to learn that they were in fact two entirely unrelated stories designed as star vehicles for a Cantopop girl group named Twins?

On the lookout for a local equivalent to J-pop duo KinKi Kids, Emperor Entertainment Group signed up part-time models Charlene Choi (already a budding actress) and Gillian Chung to form bubblegum pop band Twins in 2001. The following year saw the release of their first album and their appearance together in two lightweight comedies. The Twins Effect [Qiān jī biàn] (2003) is their third outing together, a martial arts vampire comedy which takes itself seriously for the first 10 minutes – a massive fight scene which sees two vampire hunters and a horde of the undead demolishing a train station (plus a train or two) – before tossing away all pretence and flooring the accelerator for silliness.

Although the opening sequence would have you believe that vampire hunter Reeve (Ekin Cheng) is the protagonist, he quickly takes a back seat to his female co-stars – his younger sister Helen (Charlene Choi) and his new apprentice Gypsy (Gillian Chung). Helen is a hot-tempered young woman with an impressive set of lungs whose ability to scream should be registered as a deadly weapon. Enthralled by her public confrontation with her cheating boyfriend (Chapman To), pretty boy goth Kazaf (Edison Chen) immediately falls for Helen and offers his shoulder to cry on. But Kazaf isn’t just any goth – he’s a vampire prince who refuses to suck blood, living instead off a supply of bottled blood sent by his father. Kazaf and his entourage, led by his loyal retainer Prada (Anthony Wong), have set up home in a large church in the middle of Hong Kong so that Kazaf can spread his wings away from the boredom of court politics – which is fortuitous since in his absence the evil Duke Dekotes (Mickey Hardt), last seen battling Reeve in the opening sequence, has been killing off the royal family to accumulate plot tokens which will allow him to achieve some vaguely defined ultimate power.

But don’t worry too much about the plot framework – it only really exists for two reasons: to provide an excuse for the action scenes; and as a backdrop against which Helen and Gypsy can pursue their romantic goals while becoming BFFs. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start when Helen discovers that Gypsy has used some of her toothpaste, leading to a protracted fight sequence which escalates to ridiculous proportions, similar in tone to the comically endless battle between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live (1988) over whether or not to wear sunglasses. Gypsy’s determination to impress Reeve almost gets him turned into a vampire, while Kazaf’s determination not to let Helen down forces him to wear dark clothes and masses of sunscreen on their midday wedding-crashing date. Of the two romantic pairings, the Helen/Kazaf relationship is far more engaging and occupies more screentime – a particular highlight sees Kazaf showing off his pimped-out coffin, complete with fur-lined upholstery, electric lighting and a kicking sound system.

The film is rife with cameo performances, most notably from Hong Kong action legend Jackie Chan. Making his first appearance as the groom at the wedding to which Helen invited herself, he turns up again at a crucial moment as an ambulance driver just as Helen and Kazaf are escaping from the bad vampires. This provides the perfect excuse for a Chan speciality, a Buster Keaton-inspired comedy fight sequence which allows a character with no fighting skills to pratfall his way to victory (or at least safety) against all odds. Chan’s high-kicking bride is played by Karen Mok (A Chinese Odyssey – reviewed here), a Cantopop legend with 17 albums and more than 40 film appearances to her name. All three members of short-lived girl group 3T can also be seen here in smaller roles: Mandy Chiang has the largest role as Momoko, the estate agent who brokers the deal with the vampires and catches the eye of Prada; Maggie Lau takes part in the ambulance chase as Nurse Maggie; and Yumiko Cheng appears as a wedding guest.

The Twins Effect II [Qiān jī biàn èr Huādū dàzhàn] (2004) jettisons the modern day for an indeterminate historical fantasy setting ruled by the evil Empress Ya Ge (Qu Ying), whose response to the perceived betrayal of her paramour High Priest Wei Liao (Daniel Wu) was to outlaw love and to turn all men into slaves – all except for the High Priest, who castrated himself. Spring (Charlene Choi) is a slave dealer with no ethical qualms about her livelihood, while Blue Bird (Gillian Chung) is one of the Empress’ elite agents. This time around the theoretical hero of the piece – improbably named Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in tribute to Ang Lee’s wildly successful film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [Wò hǔ cáng lóng] (2000) – is played by Donnie Yen, the action director of the original The Twins Effect, who provides an appropriately brooding heroic presence. If this were a conventional wuxia adventure, Yen’s character would dominate proceedings as we follow his heroic journey to find the magic sword and overthrow the evil Empress. By now, of course, we know better than to expect any such thing – and he remains largely in the background, only coming to centre stage for an impressively staged battle with Jackie Chan (playing the reanimated terracotta warrior Lord of Armour Wei Cheng) which, while being a thing of beauty in itself, serves no other narrative function than to keep the “hero” busy while the real main characters get on with the story.

As with The Twins Effect, the focus is on the adventures of Choi and Chung’s characters as they pursue their respective beaus-to-be. Spring has been commissioned to find the missing amour of the corpulent Marshall Edo Bowman (Xie Jingjing), mistakenly interpreting her infuriatingly vague description as referring to escaped slave Blockhead (Wilson Chen). Blue Bird has been despatched on a mission to retrieve a map, stolen by master thief Peachy (Edison Chen), which has ended up in the hands of his two friends – Blockhead and Charcoal Head (Jaycee Chan). Whilst following the map to its destination, the two women fall in love with their respective lunkheads – one of whom, it turns out, is the rightful King who will claim the sword and lead his people to victory. Amongst the supporting cast, Fan Bing-bing – one of China’s most prominent actresses – stands out in an early career performance as Blue Bird’s rival Red Vulture, adding a nuance which hints at the stronger roles to come in films like I Am Not Madame Bovary [Wǒ Búshì Pān Jīnlián] (2016) (reviewed here). Providing the obligatory music-industry cameos this time around are Steven Cheung and Kenny Kwan of boy band Boy’z, who play two of the nameless slaves.

Similar in tone to its predecessor and featuring action sequences which are arguably superior to the original, The Twins Effect II is unfortunately weighed down by tired tropes of stereotyped male and female behaviour. The film’s matriarchal society is an ugly caricature and the prophecy of the Empress’ fall is framed in terms of restoring the balance by having a man take over. Although the filmmakers scramble frantically at the end to make it clear that the heroes will be establishing a society based on equality between the sexes rather than male dominance, it’s too little too late. There’s also a painfully unfunny character played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (an otherwise talented actor) whose attempts to masquerade as a woman are so wince-inducing that they verge on transphobia. Add that to the decision not to examine slavery as anything other than a comical trope and you have a film riddled with problematic elements which run the risk of outweighing its more enjoyable aspects.

Choi and Chung have good chemistry with each other, as you’d hope for a duo who collaborated to create 16 studio albums between 2002 and 2012. Of the two, Clarence Choi gets to have more fun, quivering with frustration in the first film and luxuriating in casual venality in the second. Gillian Chung is more contained in both, occupying more of a “straight man” role with touches of the conventional female romantic lead. They would appear together in 14 films (and one TV series) between 2002 and 2007, eventually living up to their band name by playing competing sets of good and evil twins in the far-more-accurately-titled The Twins Mission [Seung ji san tau] (2007). Both performers have continued to appear separately, with more than 50 other roles each on their respective CVs.

The Twins Effect was co-directed by Dante Lam & Donnie Yen – although to my mind Yen, who doubles as action director, makes a far more significant contribution to the film’s success than Lam. Donnie Yen is one of the action movie genre’s most prominent performers, and while his name may not be familiar as that of Jackie Chan or Jet Li, his face is likely to be just as familiar – indeed I recently saw somebody online confidently identifying a picture of Yen as Jet Li simply because they recognised his face and knew he wasn’t Jackie Chan. Yen won Best Action Choreography at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards for his work on The Twins Effect and I’ve talked about him at greater length in my review of Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen [Jīng wǔ fēng yún – Chén Zhēn] (2010).

The Twins Effect II was co-directed by Corey Yuen & Patrick Leung – and once again it’s the action director, in this case Corey Yuen, whose contributions are most crucial. One of the Seven Little Fortunes (whose more famous members include Jackie Chan & Sammo Hung), he’s worked extensively in both Hong Kong and Hollywood action cinema. To select just a few highlights, he was martial arts director on the wild fantasy romp Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain [Xīn shǔ shān jiàn xiá] (1983); action director for John Woo’s Red Cliff [Chi Bi] (2008-2009); and solo director on the Jet Li-starring Fong Sai-yuk [Fāng Shì Yù] (1993) and its sequel.

If you’re looking for intricate plotting and nuanced characters, then boy have you been reading the wrong review! The Twins Effect movies are lightweight pieces of fluff hung on a loose plot framework which they will happily jettison if it gets in the way of the fun. Some viewers will find the movies funnier than I did, while others will find the humour to be gratingly annoying – but even then, fans of Jackie Chan should at least enjoy his appearances. I doubt that I’ll ever watch either of these films again, but I’m happy to have seen them.

As a special bonus for the curious, along with the usual trailers (which make the movies look more serious than they are), I’ve included a promotional clip for the theme song from the first movie, recorded by Twins with guest vocalist Jackie Chan.

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