[Just giving this one a nudge as Pang Ho Cheung's latest had its official world premiere at the HKIFF last night!]
Ask any smoker - all the best gossip, jokes and stories are told on cigarette breaks. Whether you're an office worker or a high school student, those few minutes when you're forced to head outside, come rain or shine, or hide in some remote location where you shouldn't really be, to partake in a little, nicotine-based self abuse, are moments to be treasured. Non-smokers may be feeling morally superior, as they sit inside, their lungs free from tar and carbon monoxide, but they may also feel a slight sting of exclusion. And they would be right.
All too often, it's during fag breaks (apologies, I'm British) that the embarrassing tales from the night before come out, or the plans for the next night on the town are made - in the fire escapes or outside the Emergency Exits, away from eavesdroppers and superiors. Popping out for a cigarette is also the perfect excuse to ask that particular co-worker or classmate whom you quite like, out on a 5-minute mini-date and get some quality one-on-one time away from prying eyes.
It's within this environment that Pang Ho Cheung sets his new romantic comedy, LOVE IN A PUFF. Cherie (Miriam Yeung) is a cosmetics sales girl who has become smoking buddies with the staff of a nearby advertising agency. Every day they meet in an alleyway, to enjoy a smoke and a gossip, and it is here she is introduced to Jimmy (Shawn Yue). Jimmy, she has been told, has just broken up with his girlfriend and although Cherie is in a relationship, they strike up a conversation and end up exchanging phone numbers. The film follows these two characters over the next seven days as they get to know each other.
Plot-wise, that's basically it. They talk, they SMS each other, they smoke a hell of a lot of cigarettes and slowly but surely they nurture feelings for one another. What makes LOVE IN A PUFF enjoyable is the film's authenticity. It's characterization is spot-on, perfectly capturing the behaviour, rituals and dating etiquette of local Hong Kongers, from their dependency on text messaging as opposed to real conversation, or their predilection for late-night fancy dress Karaoke. The script is also chock-full of crude, offensive and often hilarious Cantonese euphemisms and slang that can't always be accurately translated but can be heard bandied around in the offices, restaurants and of course, around the communal ashtrays throughout the city.
The performances are believable and likeable, without feeling the need to veer into exaggerated histrionics as happens all too often in local comedies. Miriam in particular plays Cherie's more cautious and complicated character (she's older than Jimmy and has a current relationship to deal with) just as you imagine it would play out in real-life. The main action is also intercut with characters being interviewed - about their smoking habits and relationships - similar to scenes in films like ANNIE HALL and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. These moments help to underline the sentiment that the film is an examination of social mores as much as it is a straight narrative, but don't really add to the story itself.
Clearly made quickly and off-the-cuff to blow off steam (or should that be smoke?) while Pang worked through the debacle that has been the post-production phase of DREAM HOME, LOVE IN A PUFF is something of a gem. Pang takes a simple everyday premise and lets it unfold naturally, without any sense of urgency or any overriding need for it to come to any revelatory conclusions, and it develops a naturalistic credibility as a result. Fans waiting with increasing impatience for the arrival of his Josie Ho slasher vehicle will relish the opening of LOVE IN A PUFF, which begins with a playfully creepy sequence that bodes well for his ability to create tension. Until DREAM HOME finally emerges however, it would appear this little cigarette break provides the perfect fix.
Cross published in bc Magazine (Hong Kong)