When MMA fighter Tiger (Jacky Heung) and his loan shark boss kidnap ring girl Cuckoo (Keru Wang), their initially antagonistic relationship turns to one of support as Cuckoo reveals her plan to get onto the ‘Perfect Diva’ singing contest, whose judge plagiarised her songs to further his own career. As Tiger helps Cuckoo to fulfil her ambition, his own plans to retire from fighting are complicated by not only his boss but also the reappearance of a figure from his past.

Renowned Hong Kong veteran To returns to the big screen with his first film since 2016’s Three. However, unlike that film, which resembled his crime thrillers of the ’90s and ’00s such as The MissionElection and Breaking News, To instead leans into his more comedic tastes, utilising aspects of his musical The Office and his romantic comedy Don’t Go Breaking My Heart to bring this story to life.

This doesn’t mean that he skimps on the violence. Tiger’s MMA fights are staged for visceral effect, with the camera held closely on every punch, kick and throw and the sound effects amplifying every bone break. However, it’s the musical numbers that impress the most. To stages them initially through the framing device of the ‘Perfect Diva’ show, which also allows him to lightly satirise reality television, but eventually breaks free of that format with a song and dance number that involves most of the cast on the main city set that resembles those from the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals.

It is to To’s credit, then, that he manages to skilfully blend the hard-hitting aspects of Tiger’s narrative as a fighter and Cuckoo’s quest to gain credit for her musical talent as well as handle the tonal shifts during the film’s third act – aspects that often elide lesser Hong Kong filmmakers. In particular, Tiger’s confrontation with his old boxing trainer and his desire to avenge him in a later fight has a naturalistic staging that contrasts with the more stylised presentation of previous scenes without coming across as overly jarring.

This ability to manage the shifts in tone and genre is also shared by the two leading actors. Heung manages to capture both Tiger’s mischievous nature and initial enthusiasm in his early interactions with Cuckoo as well as the character’s more stoic and driven nature as he is forced to fight again. In addition, he is able to adeptly pull off Tiger’s fighting ability, showing impressive athletic skill in pulling off the character’s more complex moves when he is fighting in the cage. Similarly, Wang not only convinces in her early comedic exchanges with Heung as well as in later dramatic moments but also expertly handles the film’s many musical numbers, using them to showcase her impressive singing ability. At one point she is required to impersonate a diverse array of singers such as Madonna, Lady Gaga and Sid Vicious.

The script, co-written by To’s long-time collaborator Wai Ka-Fai, does lean heavily on cliched narrative devices (Tiger and Cuckoo initially resenting each other but then falling in love, the final fight for the hospitalised relative/mentor) and a few unlikely coincidences (Cuckoo’s moment of glory in the third act being a particularly jarring one). However, the sheer energy of To’s direction, particularly in the musical numbers, and the spirited performances of Heung and Wang more than atone for these issues.

Chasing Dream is a crowd-pleasing rom-com/musical/sports drama featuring charismatic leads that succeeds in weaving its multiple genres together due to the expertise of its director – a true Hong Kong legend.

Screened as part of Fantasia Festival