I'm only a little bit ashamed to admit that I loved Making the Band. No, not the acceptably addictive, Diddy-produced Danity Kane version. I'm talking about the one that birthed O-Town, baby - the quintet of preppy dudes united by boy-band Svengali Lou Pearlmen for three seasons of semi-emotive crooning, thrusting choreography, manufactured drama, and all the *NSYNC coattail riding instant fame could buy. But in the long run, O-Town wasn't meant to be - how can anyone walk away from a song called "Liquid Dreams" with dignity intact?
The boy-band phenomenon of the early millennium has thankfully faded, but there's still parody meat enough for Hong Kong heartthrob (and San Francisco native) Daniel Wu, who makes his writing and directing debut with Heavenly Kings. A mock doc that takes itself a bit more seriously than Christopher Guest's oeuvre (which is to say, there are fewer laughs), Heavenly Kings follows Wu and fellow HK actors Conroy Chan Chi-Chung, Andrew Lin, and Terence Yin as they spontaneously form Alive, a Backstreet Boys-ish singing group. There's plenty of comedy in the film's first half, including encounters with a knob-twiddling studio whiz charged with correcting off-key vocals ("I realized they were fucking shit," he says) and Alive's sneaky strategy of putting their first (and apparently only) single online - then drumming up media attention by pretending to be mystified and outraged by the leak.
How much of Heavenly Kings is real, and how much is fake? Like the 2004 doc Czech Dream, which followed a pair of prankster filmmakers who launched a huge ad campaign for the opening of a supermarket that didn't actually exist, the members of Alive are pulling the wool over certain eyes (the actors' fans who attend Alive concerts) but not others (there's a scene with a tacky, maybe-too-fey clothing designer that's clearly a scripted affair). Reality is further blurred by interviews with real HK recording stars, who voice concerns about their industry's lack of integrity. There is, they explain, a discouraging emphasis on superficiality over legitimate art and talent. (Sounds just like America's idols, don't it?)
So while there's a dose of O-Town-style schadenfreude at work in Heavenly Kings - especially when the friendships between the guys break down amid power struggles, malaise, and boozing - the film is also trying to make a salient point about the music biz. Whether or not there's room for serious commentary in a film top-loaded with goofy montages, animated sequences, and the band's oft-repeated frothy ditty ("Adam's Choice" - coming to a karaoke bar near you!) is never really resolved. But Wu and his cohorts get props for sending up their dreamy images in a film that'll prove most entertaining to folks who're in on the joke.
THE HEAVENLY KINGS (Daniel Wu, Hong Kong, 2006). Fri/27, 9:45 p.m., Castro. Also Sun/29, 6 p.m., Kabuki; May 4, 5 p.m., Kabuki