After dipping his toe into China with his 2012 sequel Love In The Buff, Hong Kong auteur Pang Ho Cheung embraces the inevitable and presents his first full-blown mainland production, Women Who Flirt. Zhou Xun and Huang Xiaoming play the longtime friends and colleagues whose til-now platonic relationship is jeopardised by Taiwanese dolly bird Sui Tang, forcing Zhou to step up and show she's got what it takes to win the guy she's always loved.
Based on the dating "toolbook" Everyone Loves Tender Women by Loverman, Women Who Flirt is hardly venturing into uncharted territory. Angie (Zhou Xun) and Marco (Huang Xiaoming) have been friends so long he no longer sees her as dating material, even going so far as to refer to her as a "dude" on numerous occasions. Similarly, Angie has never revealed her true feelings for Marco, who has always put career and family ahead of romance, opting instead to stay close and wait until he's ready for a relationship.
Angie and Marco work for a restaurant consultancy firm, observing service performance for worried owners - which proves nothing more than a narrative device to have them both spend most of their time together in fancy eateries. Trouble rears its head in the form of beautiful yet overly demanding Hailey (Sui Tang), whom Marco met on a recent trip to Taipei. Now the business is going well Marco feels confident to take Angie's (insincere) advice and start dating, and Hailey's appearance forces Angie to turn to BFF May (comedienne Sie Yi Lin) and her gang of gal-pals to coach the almost tomboyish Angie on how to get Marco to see her for the beautiful woman she really is.
While the script pulls few punches along the way, Pang's strength as a writer and filmmaker has always been in his excellent observations on modern dating rituals, combined with a wicked, cine-literate sense of humour. The Shanghai setting and Mandarin dialogue mean Pang's signature Cantonese slang is absent, but there's still room for innuendo, as well as pop culture references to everything from Ghost to spaghetti westerns and Huang's own film The Guillotines. Most importantly, Pang knows how to make audiences laugh in any language, poking fun at the ridiculous lengths men and women will go for love. And it's not just women who come under scrutiny for their predatory dating ethics, the men in Women Who Flirt come off just as poorly.
Marco is portrayed as naive, oblivious, shallow and superficial on his way to finally appreciating women for more than their looks and needy behaviour. Angie, meanwhile, is stubborn, introverted and her own worst enemy until she eventually concedes to get in the fight and go after what she wants. Interestingly, the villain of the piece, Hailey, is portrayed as a Taiwanese "foreigner", leading to much territorial cattiness from May and her friends about her behaviour. While for the most part Hailey is seen as frustratingly clingy and spoilt - which, incidentally, Marco actively encourages - it is revealed to be something of an act, one that every woman knows how to use to her advantage.
Beyond Pang's entertaining and insightful script, co-penned by Luk Yee Sum and Zhang You You, Women Who Flirt works because of its strong trio of lead performances, and the authenticity of the romantic interplay between them. While no one truly believes for a moment that Zhou Xun is anything less than a stunningly attractive woman, she does a great job of playing down her physical strengths, embodying Angie with at first an aloof nonchalance towards the opposite sex, before displaying an attractive determination, without appearing desperate.
Huang Xiaoming does a far better job of giving life to his character here than he did in the woefully inert White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, in which he failed to cause a single romantic spark between leading lady Fan Bingbing. While their characters spend most of the film deliberately not displaying their affection for each other, Huang and Zhou cook up an effortless chemistry and familiarity when on screen together that has you genuinely rooting for them to get together.
Taiwanese model-turned-actress Sui Tang's work here should also not go overlooked. While Hailey is almost always irritating in the way she plays the helpless princess, there is still something frustratingly adorable about her, as Sui plays brilliantly to Marco's desire to prove himself a competent Prince Charming. Eventually her veneer of helplessness is removed, revealing an infinitely more duplicitous and manipulative character beneath, but her role as evil rival is far from one-dimensional.
At the end of the day, Women Who Flirt is a fairly frivolous affair, but one in which the men come off way worse than the women. Sure, the bulk of the running time is made up of young females falling over themselves to win the attentions of a rather oblivious guy who does little to prove his worth, but the film makes no mistake about showing us what all men truly know deep down - that control of the dating game has always been in the hands of the women.
Women Who Flirt is out now in China, as well as on limited release across North America. The film opens in Hong Kong in January 2015.
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