(Giving this review a bump as the film enjoys its official world premiere tonight as opening film of the 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival)
Writer-director Pang Ho Cheung's 2010 comedy LOVE IN A PUFF was something of a happy accident. During the agonising and lengthy post-production dramas that befell his Josie Ho slasher vehicle, DREAM HOME, Pang sought artistic refuge and revitalisation by immersing himself in a new production. Shot quickly and inexpensively, from a smart, yet foul-mouthed script he penned with Heiward Mak, the film was an honest and realistic examination of the modern Hong Kong romance. As was the case for Wong Kar Wai when he escaped the grueling rigmarol of ASHES OF TIME and produced CHUNGKING EXPRESS on the fly as a means of revitalising himself, so LOVE IN A PUFF emerged as a more clearly realised, effective and better received film than the grand scale production from which it was spawned.
Much of the success of the first film, which focused on a week in the life of two office workers, advertising executive Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and the older cosmetician Cherie (Miriam Yeung), who meet on their cigarette breaks and embark on an infidelious relationship, came from the screenplay's on-the-nose depiction of Hong Kong's young adults. Most notably in the casually foul-mouthed slang that is bandied around freely, and which successfully garnered the film a Category III rating, meaning under-18s were prohibited from seeing the film. Two years later and Pang has delivered a sequel to the film and many fans, while happy to revisit these characters and see whether their relationship has proved a success or not, have reason to be wary that Pang may have made something of an artistic compromise for commercial gain.
Firstly, LOVE IN THE BUFF takes place almost entirely in Beijing in a fairly obvious attempt to appeal to a wider mainland audience. As a direct result of this, more of the film's dialogue is in Mandarin, although the script does engineer ways for Jimmy and Cherie's friends to join them in the Chinese capital, thus availing them numerous opportunities to continue speaking Cantonese throughout the film. Furthermore, there is an almost total absence of smoking this time round, as both main protagonists have already made a pact to quit the unhealthy habit that originally brought them together. Lastly, and most importantly, the film has earned a more lenient Category IIB rating, which is advisory rather than restrictive and therefore suggests that Pang has toned down the fruity and abrasive dialogue that was so integral to the first film.
It is with a huge, tar-free sigh of uncontaminated relief, therefore, that LOVE IN THE BUFF reveals itself to be just as crude, potty-mouthed and flat-out hilarious as its predecessor, while also continuing its shrewd dissection of Hong Kong love lives - and even throwing a little mainland flavour into the mix. We pick up the action about five months into the couple's relationship. They are living together and most definitely in love, but it doesn't take long before the cracks in their happy facade are exposed. Jimmy is still as immature as ever, lying to Cherie when he wants to go out drinking with his buddies or catch up with an ex-girlfriend, rather than be open and honest about his intentions. Cherie is frustrated that her man is forcing her into the role of lawmaker, when she is already sensitive about being the more senior of the two. Her biological clock is ticking but her partner is as unreliable as ever and showing no desire to settle down and start a family. At the very mention of children, he throws his arms in the air and proclaims himself to still be a child that needs looking after. The final straw comes when Jimmy is offered a job in their Beijing office and the couple must come to a decision about their future. Cherie moves back in with her mother and Jimmy heads north on his own.
Cut to six months later and Cherie's boss out of the blue offers her the chance to join her in Beijing to open a new branch. Needing a new opportunity, she accepts and soon enough also finds herself in the capital, dealing with the dry air, oily food and - bam - Jimmy appearing right in front of her, with gorgeous fragile dolly bird girlfriend, You You (Mini Yang) on his arm. How can she possibly compete? Her friends come and visit and even help her get into the dating scene - contending with matchmaking parents hawking their sons in the park and blind dates with older men who look nothing like their descriptions. All seems lost until, trapped in a restaurant toilet, she meets Sam (Xu Zheng), a successful, modest, responsible divorcee, in whom she sees a sensible prospect for a stable future. But will it be enough?
While all this might sound like the stuff of very heavy romantic drama, Pang ensures that every aspect of his film is handled with a cynical and knowing sensibility that hits exactly the same vein as the previous installment. His loose-tongued cast scores laugh after laugh with their ridiculous anecdotes, rapid-fire banter and smart observational humour about men & women, Hong Kong & mainland China, young love & mature relationships that had the audience roaring with laughter time and time again. While some of the gags work in any language - sex scenes are replaced by shots of large phallic-shaped buildings or classic karaoke videos are shamelessly lampooned - there are jokes that don't make it into the subtitles (one particular reference to girls as vegetables springs to mind), but more than enough make it through the language barrier to entertain audiences for whom Cantonese (or indeed Mandarin) is not a familiar tongue.
LOVE IN THE BUFF also boasts a number of great cameos, many of which serve as punchlines to previous references in the film and all of which scored massive laughs when they appeared on screen. But beyond the jokes, the film works because its characters are honest (in their portrayal if not their behaviour) and deal with problems and situations that we have all faced ourselves many times. Couples lie to each other, keep secrets, fight over ridiculously small and insignificant things and repeatedly hurt each others' feelings - sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. What Pang and his cast understand is that love is not easy, relationships are as much about fighting and making up as they are about enjoying good times together or bitching about your partner with your friends.
Is LOVE IN THE BUFF better than its predecessor? That's difficult to say right now, as I'm still basking in the warm fuzzy feeling of having just spent a couple of hours laughing and crying in the company of characters I really like and believe in. Pang can rest assured, however, that he has delivered undeniably the year's best romantic comedy and every bit the worthy successor to its predecessor. Thanks to some minor compromises and sacrifices along the way, it should also enjoy a far more profitable relationship with the movie-going public, not only in Hong Kong but north of the border and beyond.
LOVE IN THE BUFF premieres at the 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival on 21 March, opens in Hong Kong cinemas on 29 March and North America on 30 March.