Comedy Drama

Empire of Plight: A TIFF Review of ‘The Movie Emperor’

September 17, 2023Ben MK

One of the greatest performers of his generation, Andy Lau has conquered the box office on numerous occasions. Best known for his role in the Infernal Affairs trilogy, where he starred opposite fellow Chinese superstar Tony Leung, Lau has acted in nearly 200 films and is also one of Asia's most popular singers. Whether he's playing a cop, a criminal or a warrior from an ancient time, Lau has left an indelible impression on every single one of the movies he's been in. But in director Ning Hao's The Movie Emperor, the 61-year-old Hong Kong legend may have just found his most memorable role — playing a beloved screen icon desperately seeking the validation of his peers and the public.

A satire of the film industry, the story follows Dany Lau (Lau), a veteran of the Hong Kong movie world who's been acting since the age of 17. Yet, despite all of the accolades he's earned over the years, there's one thing that has eluded him throughout all of his career — an award for Best Actor from the Hong Kong Film Awards. It's an oversight that Dany is hopeful will be rectified at the 39th annual HKFAs, where he's going up against his fellow industry elites. But when he loses out to Jackie Chan, the public humiliation inspires Dany to go on a quest to finally land that coveted statue. Signing up to play a peasant farmer in a new independent project, Dany is confident that this is the role that will solidify his legacy. However, after a clip of him performing a stunt involving a real horse triggers an online backlash among animal lovers, it sends Dany's PR team into damage control mode. Already suffering from the emotional burden of his divorce from his wife, with whom he has two young children, Dany spirals further and further into emotional crisis. And with his mental state causing him to make one bad decision after another, it soon becomes unclear whether both he and his career will survive.

Superbly wry in its humor but also devastatingly melancholy in its portrait of a man in turmoil, The Movie Emperor is both a bittersweet character study and an acerbically funny jab at the absurdity of the film business. Still, what ultimately resonates the most is Lau's razor-sharp and poignant portrayal. Like the crowning achievement in a decades-long career, it's a well-earned performance that won't be dethroned any time soon. And considering Lau's long list of accomplishments, there's nothing ironic about that.

The Movie Emperor screens under the Gala Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 5 min.

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