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Plot: young tech employee meets a girl who might, or might not, be a cyborg.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, wrote English writer Charles Caleb Colton famously in 1820. It’s an old adage that rings true across various spectrums of the art world but none illustrates it better than cinema. Entire national cotton industries were spawned to accomodate imitations of the latest cinematic trends. Italy dominated the market for such ventures from, say, the sixies through eighties – but the rest of Meditterranean Europe (especially Spain) and the Philippines were never close behind. The Far East has a long cinematic tradition of the sometimes quite bizarre. In recent years China has emerged as number one in imitating popular movies from the world over on a fraction of the budget and without any of the talent. The Temptation of the Maid (released regionally as 超能萌女友 or Super Cute Girlfriend and The AI Housemaid, depending on your preference) is a Chinese reimagining and partial merging of two popular Japanese movies from a decade prior. As always with these kind of ventures it behoofs one to see the originals prior to this tolerable derivation.

Whenever a movie reaches a certain point of cultural – or critical mass regional imitations are bound to follow. The Temptation of the Maid (or alternatively The AI Housemaid, as it will be referred to hereafter) from director Xu Zeyu is not only a loose remake of Jae-young Kwak’s My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) but attempts to tug on the heart strings very much in the way of Hirokazu Kore’eda’s Air Doll (2009) and even has Zhang Lijun dressing up as a French chambermaid just like Bae Doo-na did in the earlier movie. The AI Housemaid fares as well as you’d expect under what are far from optimal circumstances, most of which can be leveled at the screenplay from Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao as well as this being a Q1Q2 production. Both men understand what made Jae-young Kwak’s original work so well yet their screenplay blunders in some pretty crucial areas. A few details have been changed around to hide the obvious thievery and the men even stumble onto a good idea occassionally either intentionally or by mistake. Suffice to say The AI Housemaid never come close to My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) in terms of emotional resonance, although it never stops trying.

In a surge of electricity white-hooded Xiao Xia (Zhang Lijun) appears in a parking garage in Shanghai. There she runs into an understandably confused Sam Jiaoshou (Cao Shengming) from who she picks up speech patterns and a simulacrum of humanity. In a department store in the city she runs into Cao Xiaoming (Chen Yuan) who is in the process of buying himself a present for his 32nd birthday. There Xiao Xia steals some expensive clothes, walks funnily in front of him and buys a cake at the bakery. The two end up Xiaoming’s favorite restaurant and, after an extended detour across the city, Cao realizes that Xiao Xia (or Little Summer) isn’t a ghost, a stray, or a beggar girl, and decides to take his new companion to his apartment. There he learns that she’s a cyborg sent to him by his senior aged, paralyzed future self (Fang Shialing) to look after his needs in the present time. At first he’s irked by Little Summer’s child-like antics but he eventually warms up her innocence and naivety. As an employee at a technology company Little Summer inspires him to invent a line of housemaid cyborgs, prompting Sam Jiaoshou to stage the world’s worst planned home invasion to obtain said designs. As always The AI Housemaid intervenes and diffuses the situation. Many years pass and Cao Xiaoming has fallen deeply in love with Little Summer. He realizes that The AI Housemaid has changed his destiny several times by just being with him.

At the forefront of Chinese cinema in the past several years have been the Film Bureau and Q1Q2. Both have been flooding the Internet with some of the cheapest (and, occasionally, good) productions across a variety of genres. Whereas the Film Bureau usually helms moderately budgeted genre pieces Q1Q2 always manages to do whatever the Film Bureau does far quicker, cheaper and with considerably less star-power. Before anything else The AI Housemaid is a largely faithful Mainland China remake of the Japanese movie My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) from a decade before. For the most part The AI Housemaid is able to work around its more obvious budgetary limitations (there is no grand disaster set to happen, special effect shots are kept to a minimum as is Zhang Lijun’s wardrobe, and choreography-centric action are fazed out almost entirely). What keeps The AI Housemaid from reaching its full potential is a widely uneven screenplay that checks all the boxes for a remake, occasionally wanders into a good idea but most of the time staggers around with no sense of direction. The pre-credit opening montage gives the impression that The AI Housemaid will be going for Cutie Honey: Tears (2016) production design but no such thing will be forthcoming.

My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was Jae-young Kwak’s love note to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The AI Housemaid ends up imitating several of the Terminator inspired scenes from the original but apparently has no idea why they were there in the first place. Most of the key scenes have some kind of equivalent in The AI Housemaid and where the screenplay deviates from the Japanese original is typically where it falls short too. The only thing that the screenplay by Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao actually improves upon is by giving the cyborg a name and making her the viewpoint character. The AI Housemaid is, first and foremost, the story of Little Summer whereas My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was ostensibly told from Jiro’s perspective. Chen Yuan is scruffy and likeable enough but he’s no Keisuke Koide. Not even by a long shot. In her part news anchor Zhang Lijun (张丽君) is adorable enough but Yang Ke, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Ada Liu Yan, Patricia Hu, Liu Zhimin, or Ni Ni (neither of whom this production could possibly afford) would’ve been a far better fit for the part that Haruka Ayase played. Despite that one major improvement, The AI Housemaid never becomes more than the sum of its various borrowed parts.

The initial meet-cute on the streets is virtually identical and it even copies the same joke (Cao Xiaoming crashes into a lamppost), like Haruka Ayase in My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) Zhang Lijun too zaps someone in the mall (not with her eyes, but with her fingertips), and the obligatory dance scene is rather improvised compared to the “do the robot” dance scene in the original. In The AI Housemaid it’s Lijun who gorges on spaghetti the way Keisuke Koide did in the original and the inciting incident is a home invasion instead of a restaurant shooting. Both cyborg girls project a holographic recording from their future masters out of their eyes but with Little Summer there’s no dramatic build-up to the third act resolution. That Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao don’t grasp the original’s far more subtleler moments is abundantly clear through out. There’s no equivalent to the “thumbs up” scene, there’s no pet named Raoul (or a counterpart for such), and Cao Xiaoming doesn’t travel back to his hometown either. One of the most genuinely touching moments in My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) is when Jiro breaks up with Cyborg She in a confused, drunken stupor and immediately regrets his decision afterwards. When the Tokyo earthquake hits and the two confess their feelings for each other it offers a profoundly moving emotional resolution to the second act conflict. The AI Housemaid blunders most catastrophically by not setting up any meaningful conflict or break-up in whichever form and thus there’s no dramatic tension. When Cao Xiaoming and Little Summer do get together in the third act it irrevocably rings hollow as neither has experienced any sort of growth or arc.

In recent years there has been a considerable influx of mostly Chinese imitations. Whether it’s the more conceptually ambitious and action-oriented Super Robot Girl (2015) or more plain comedic exercises as Jing Wong’s iGirl (2016) (with Chrissie Chau Sau-Na, Connie Man Hoi-Ling, and Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi), Heavenly Machine Maid (2017) (with Liu Zhimin), the Mainland China iGirl (2017), or Be Careful! Single Pain (2018) (with Wu Hao) they all draw heavily from either Jae-young Kwak’s My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) or Hirokazu Kore’eda’s Air Doll (2009). More often than not they seem hellbent on combining the two to varying levels of success. What they all invariably have in common is that sooner or later one or more of the cyborg girls will end up in a French chambermaid costume. Another thing these imitations all have in common is a tendency to be emaciated in terms of plot and feature tubby, blackrimmed glasses wearing socially handicapped nerd types in need of a confidence boost. The cycle of otaku fantasy fulfillment movies aren’t all that surprising in light of China’s fairly recent adoption of Japanese culture and entertainment. The problem of socially withdrawn youths or hikikomori seems to be manifesting in China as well. That domestic cinema would pick up on that shift seems only natural and logical. A decade-plus removed from the original it’s puzzling that there has been neither an American or Bollywood remake at this point, especially in light of the original My Sassy Girl (2001).

That there was going to be a world of difference between The AI Housemaid and My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was all but expected given the decade between both. Given the modesty of its budget it never was going to be able to compete with the original and its muddy screenplay only serves to make matters worse. Had this been given the big budget remake treatment then perhaps it would have fared better. Most remakes try to recreate the magic from the original without always grasping what exactly inspired said magic in the first place. The AI Housemaid is no different in that regard. It slavishly recreates many scenes from My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) but hardly, if ever, understands why they worked so well in the original. Vanilla Sky (2001) was a soulless Hollywoodization of the Spanish fantastique Open Your Eyes (1997), the American The Ring (2002) and The Eye (2008) barely understood why Ringu (1998) and The Eye (2002) worked so well within their respective cultural confines. After all China’s CCTV6 remade National Treasure (2004) as The Empire Symbol (2013). Remakes that improve upon the original are far and few to begin with. The AI Housemaid is a valiant attempt to interpret a Japanese/Korean movie for a Mainland China audience and, to a certain degree, it works as intended. More importantly, however, is that The AI Housemaid never resonates quite in the same way as Jae-young Kwak’s original work from whence it was derived. As hard as it might try The AI Housemaid is not the sprawling romance it probably ought have been – and that’s a pity because Chinese culture is usually better attuned to this sort of thing.

Plot: backpacking tourists encounter mercenaries in the jungles of Thailand.

There’s something to be said about the tenets and profound effects of globalization when a contemporary Mainland Chinese jungle action-adventure in the 2010s plays out by the exact same beats and character ur-archetypes as the Thai jungle actioners of Chalong Pakdeevijit in the 90s, the late 80s Italian jungle adventures of the 80s, and Filipino exploitation of the 70s. Angel Warriors (or 鐵血嬌娃 back at home) is conclusive proof that regardless of the decade and/or the geographic location it was made in certain cinematic tropes and conventions remain universal and unchanging. While it never plunges to the depths of Extra Service (2017) its dour reputation is entirely and richly deserved and not without reason. No amount of hardbodied Sino babes will be able to save a feature with this much of a trainwreck of a script. Mainland China usually is better at military action than this. Angel Warriors will make you wish it was directed by Lu Yun-Fei. Sadly, he was not in the director’s chair for this one.

It truly makes no difference whether this was produced in Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Manila. The project was originally conceived in 2011 as Five-Star General - an alleged mix of Tomb Raider (2001) and the military jingoism of Avatar (2009) that pitted a group of female mercenaries or Amazon warriors against an enemy faction in the Thai jungles - and later the more Charlie’s Angels (2000) informed The Five.As a Thai co-production the Royal Thai Air Force was kind enough to supply helicopters. At some point the military aspect was toned down and the title was changed to Angel Warriors. Whether the screenplay by Huayang Fu and Shalang Xu was altered to accomodate these changes remains unclear. While Angel Warriors pushes an admirable environmental – and animal welfare agenda the screenplay is unbelievably slavish to convention, needlessly convoluted through non-functional flashbacks and rife with bad one-liners and even worse phonetic English. That it was directed by Fu Hua-Yang from the comedy hit Kung Fu Hip Hop (2008) probably didn’t help either.

Five backpacking tourist girls from Mainland China - Bai Xue (Yu Nan), CEO of a big company, passionate motorcyclist and leader of the pack; Yanyan (Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan), a professional dancer and practitioner of martial arts; Ah Ta (Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, as Mavis Pan), an wildlife protectionist; Dingdang (Wang Qiu-Zi), cousin of Bai Xue and internet entrepreneur in outdoor and extreme sports clothing and Tongtong (Wu Jing-Yi), archeologist, polyglot and the resident geek – embark on a trek through the Kana jungle in Thailand in search of the famed Tiger Tribe that has lived undisturbed and in isolation for hundreds of years. As girls are wont to do in they immediately head to the beach and break out their tiny bikinis. It is here that they meet local Dennis (Andy On Chi-Kit) and reformed mercenary Wang Laoying (Collin Chou Siu-Lung as Ngai Sing), a brother-in-arms and friend of Bai Xue’s late younger brother Bai Yun, and occupy themselves with swimming, diving and sailing. Along the way they pick up native guide and noble savage Sen (Xing Yu), betrothed of the princess of the Tiger Tribe. That night the girls go out clubbing and drinking in Pattaya beach and the obligatory bar brawl breaks out. Dennis introduces himself as a National Geographic documentary maker and soon the expedition is headed for Kana.

As the expedition heads deeper and deeper into the jungle the girls notice that the armed militia escorting Dennis is not what it seems. The expedition and the para-military units run into the Tiger Tribe and a fierce fight breaks loose. The natives are able to ward off the Chinese intruders but the girls are captured and imprisoned. The Tiger Tribe warrior princess Ha Er (Wang Danyi Li) and chieftain Aliao (Shi Fanxi, as Lawrence Shi) decree that the girls will be sacrificed to their god. Tongtong deduces what language the tribe speaks and is able to negiotiate the girls’ release. Dennis is revealed to be working with his Triad boss stepfather (Fu Hua-Yang) who are after the precious stones and other natural resources that the Kana jungle houses. The Triad boss sends Black Dragon (Kohata Ryu) and a female assassin (Renata Tan Li-Na) to neutralize both the backpacking girls as well as the native Tiger Tribe. By this point the girls have been accepted by the tribe and are being inducted into their ranks. Will the girls be strong enough to defeat the mercenaries that threaten the lush Kana jungle?

The main cast looks like they were ordered straight out of a Victoria’s Secret or Sports Illustrated Swimsuit catalog. Why Yu Nan, Collin Chou Siu-Lung and Wang Danyi Li ever agreed to be part of this production is anybody’s guess. Someone must have desperately needed the paycheck or wanted a cheap vacation in Thailand. Multiple award-winning and arthouse queen Yu Nan is the obvious draw here and Western viewers might recognize her from the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008) and as Maggie from The Expendables 2 (2012). The other big name is Hong Kong and Mainland China veteran Collin Chou Siu-Lung. His earliest appearance of note was in Encounter of the Spooky Kind II (1990) but he’s known to Western audiences as Seraph from The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix: Revolutions (2003) as well as Ryu Hayabusa from the entertaining DOA: Dead or Alive (2006). Next to that his credits include, among many others, The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), Mural (2011), and Special ID (2013). Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang was in the Sino What Women Want (2011) as well as Jing Wong's Treasure Inn (2011) and not much else. Like Wang Qiu-Zi she too rose to prominence as a model. Wang Danyi Li was unfortunate enough to be in the universally reviled 2011 remake of Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) only to end up here. Renata Tan Li-Na would redeem herself with the Chrissie Chau Sau-Na wuxia The Extreme Fox (2013). She would become popular as a singer/dancer just like Wu Jing-Yi. Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (a year away from adopting her Patricia Hu alias) would go on to become the focus in the breast-centric action romp Ameera (2014). Collin Chou Siu-Lung and Andy On Chi-Kit were in better movies before and after this and they bring some semblance of respectability to this brainless waste of talent.

Where Angel Warriors falters most disastrously is in its screenplay. This is the absolute last place to look at improving the already deeply troubled Sino-Thai relations. Like its Italian forebears of the 1970s and 80s Angel Warriors is rife with imperialist - and genetic xenophobia depicting Thai people as uncultured, jungle-dwelling savages in need to saving by the enlightened white-skinned Chinese. The pre-title opening narration from Xing Yu is in Engrish and thus insulting to not only the Thai but to the English as well. The screenplay briefly toys with the idea of spirit animals and totems, but nothing is really made of it. For a bit it pushes an eco-friendly and animal welfare narrative, but both ideas are discarded almost as soon as they are introduced. Since this an ensemble cast with a few models, dancers and assorted Sino beauty queens the first thing the girls do is break out the bikinis, splash and swim in the nearest lake and before the expedition the girls party in revealing evening dresses. Mainland China might be demure and chaste but they never not took the time to extensively ogle a beautiful girl. It’s difficult to estimate whether writers Huayang Fu and Shalang Xu are just terrible at what they do or whether they were handed the wrong project. Regardless, Angel Warriors is nothing short of a modern day Green Inferno (1988) or a spiritual Sino precursor to the Filipino zombie ensemble comedy iZla (2021). On a lighter note, if you want to make a drinking game out of every time “extreme outdoor backpackers” is mentioned, you’ll be hospitalized within a good 30 minutes.

In theory the affordability of CGI should be a boon to Chinese exploitation cinema but h!story has proven it be more of a bane instead. In what seems like a regional trend it’s the rampant CGI that completely kills much of the production. There’s a time and place for CGI but in Angel Warriors it’s used indiscriminately and disproportionately especially in places where practical special effects would have sufficed. A combination of stock footage, animatronics and practical effects could’ve rendered the tiger scenes. The action scenes are as bullet-ridden and explosive as any contemporary American production. The fight choreography by Ma Yuk-Sing is up to the required standard, although high-flying wire-fu, martial arts acrobacy and interesting fighting routines weren’t in the books here. Obviously there was some budget to go around with Angel Warriors, but apparently the majority of funds was spent in the wrong place. Angel Warriors should’ve opted for the cost-efficient route and used CGI only sparingly. Somewhere along the way somebody lost the plot and the production obviously suffered direly from it. Angel Warriors is definitely not alone in its over-reliance on and over-usage of CGI, it’s a trend in Asian cinema of late. Hopefully the savage critical response will lead to a more old-fashioned special effects usage. Whenever the screen isn’t blinking director Fu Hua-Yang will remind us that all the girls are really pretty.

One of the remnants of this being an Charlie’s Angels (2000) derivative the five girls all wear sexy outfits corresponding with their main interest or defining character trait. Only Bai Xue and Tongtong wear anything remotely semi-practical. Yanyan, Ah Ta and Dingdang all wear some Tomb Raider imitation outfit and midriff baring tops lest we forget that they are played by Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang and Wang Qiu-Zi. Not that any no extreme outdoor backpacker would ever wear what the Angel Warriors are seen in here. Suspension of belief is one thing but Angel Warriors goes completely overboard in reminding everybody how attractive the main cast is. Only Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (who apparently had the greatest potential of becoming a star of her own) was able to move on from Angel Warriors although the following year’s Ameera (2014) all but killed her career. It would be interesting to see Yu Nan, Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Wu Jing-Yi, and Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (either seperately or together) in a full-blown Girls With Guns - or period costume wuxia production. It’s not so much that these women can’t act but that they are victims of a poor screenplay. There’s always hope that either Jing Wong or Tsui Hark will pick up them in the future.