Hong Kong Film Review #2: Love in a Puff

Director: Pang Ho-Cheung

Starring: Shawn Yue, Miriam Yeung

Despite its high concept premise being something that one might expect to find in an awful student short (it’s a “Smoking Ban Romcom”), Love in a Puff is probably director Pang Ho-Cheung’s most impressive, and undoubtedly his most affecting, film to date.  And, surprisingly for a Hong Kong romantic comedy, it’s also really funny.  In a dingy alleyway where workers congregate for quick fag breaks, Jimmy (Shawn Yue), an employee at what seems like a pretty trendy advertising agency, meets Cherie (Miriam Yeung), a sales girl at the cosmetics counter of a nearby department store.  They soon exchange numbers and what follows is a remarkably authentic account of their relationship over the following seven days, with tentative flirting and prolonged SMS exchanges between the two.  Love in a Puff is probably best categorised as part of the trend of recent romantic comedies that have looked to explore the aspects of relationships that the genre has traditionally overlooked.  Just as 500 Days of Summer focused on a break up and the relationship between the leads in Knocked Up was based around an unplanned pregnancy, Love in a Puff is set squarely within the initial flirting phase – no kissing, no sex.

Pang Ho-Cheung has often come across as the Kevin Smith of the Hong Kong film industry.  Although the meticulous art direction on display in the likes of Isabella, Exodus and Dream Home might seem at odds with the haphazard visual style one associates with Smith (and it is) there are certain parallels in the careers of the two directors.  While Smith is considered to be something of a pop culture renaissance man, with various sidelines as an author, comic book writer and podcaster, at the time of Pang’s directorial debut, You Shoot, I Shoot (2001), he was already a successful radio DJ and author.  In fact, Pang’s novel, Fulltime Killer, was adapted by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai for their much derided (unfairly in my view) film of the same name.  Similarly, both have often appeared only too happy to remain in the shadows of their predecessors.  While Smith carved a niche for himself in the Miramax “independent” era of the ’90s by offering a slacker sensibility in his work that was devoid of the overt intellectualism of his great influence, Richard Linklater, Pang did little to quell suspicions of being a poor man’s Wong Kar-Wai with the release of the beautifully shot, but sadly formulaic, Isabella in 2006.  Both have made heartwarming comedies about groups of friends making porn films (AV and Zack and Miri Make a Porno) and disappointing meandering, ensemble pieces with little to recommend other than their impressive cast lists (Trivial Matters and Mallrats).  And they have both recently made their debuts in the horror genre with a couple of nifty, socially conscious horror films (Dream Home and Red State).

However, it is the pair’s penchant for reveling in the lowbrow, blokish, toilet humour of their characters that really highlights the connection.  In the early part of Smith’s oeuvre this approach seemed to be genuinely motivated by a quest for verisimilitude as he attempted to replicate the type of language that guys of his generation used.  How successful Smith was I’m not entirely sure but by the time of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back it was clear that his work now seemed to consist of little else other than dick jokes and fart gags.  In Pang’s earlier work this same crudeness often betrayed his clearly sophisticated visual sense and seemed forced and out of place.  Some of the moronic toilet humour in Trivial Matters serves only to undermine its genuinely interesting moments.  The film itself consists of seven independent vignettes, the best of which is a fascinating depiction of an encounter between a prostitute and her customer, played by Chapman To, in a hotel room. Unfortunately, the resonance and poignancy of the sequence is undermined by the imbecilic nature of some of the other segments, such as the one with Edison Chen as a man who boasts about cleaning the shit stains off of public urinals with his piss or the one with Shawn Yue as a clock-watching, stoner hit man in a bowling alley or the other with Eason Chen as a guy being haunted by a deceased girlfriend that he used to trick into giving him blow jobs (don’t ask).

All that said, in Love in a Puff he really nails it.  The vulgarity of the banter between the characters lends it a real authenticity that separates it from the camp exchanges that one might usually see Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee indulge in as they shoot the breeze. Characters interact with one another in a way that people actually do in real life.  And herein lies the real success of the movie – its authenticity.  Although this is certainly not kitchen sink realism, it looks as polished and deliberately composed as one would expect of a Pang joint and it is accompanied by a jaunty Charlotte Gainsbourg-esque score, it does seem to capture a piece of real life.  This is a stylish romantic comedy about normal people, without glamorous jobs.  Miriam Yeung is certainly not a twee, quirky Zooey Deschanel prototype and Shawn Yue doesn’t run a bohemian, second-hand bookshop or design furniture for hipsters.

While Pang Ho-Cheung is probably the most interesting Hong Kong director of the past ten years, previously something always seemed to be lacking in his work.  While the visuals of his films are consistently sharp and interesting, his work often engenders a detachment that leaves the viewer feeling like they are watching a director aping something or someone else.  Isabella is clearly Wong Kar-Wai lite tinged with a little Tsai Ming Liang. Similarly, Beyond our Ken and Exodus are both atmospheric and visually interesting films that are let down by their uninteresting, stupid plots.  Perhaps this is why, prior to Love in a Puff, his best film was probably Men Suddenly in Black – a parody triad film.  And, admittedly, there are still some traces of this odd artificiality in Love in a Puff.  The recurring device of having various characters give interviews about what love, smoking, relationships etc. mean to them and giving these segments an odd, grainy 16mm effect doesn’t work.  Its a pretty dated concept and calls to mind that phase of overly earnest early ’90s “slacker” films where women wore awful pork pie hats and waistcoats and the men had floppy hair, baggy lumberjack shirts and dodgy goatees.  There are also a couple of moments of try hard quirkiness that are not really in keeping with the rest of the film but these are minor quibbles.

In fact, strange as is might sound, Love in a Puff could almost be considered a piece of latter day cinema verité.  Although cinema verité has, in recent years, come to embody little more than mumbling, meandering dialogue delivered by actors shot with grainy, shaky, handheld cameras, Pang’s romcom is, philosophically at least, very much in tune with the work of Cassavetes.  Improvisation and disorienting camera movements were not simply an aesthetic decisions in Cassavetes’ work.  Writing about Cassavetes’ Faces in his 1969 essay on realism in cinema, Le Détour Par Le Direct, Jean Louis Comolli proposes that the realism in this work comes from its refusal to kowtow to traditional concepts of what constitutes “reality” in film.  Cassavetes does not concern himself with representing the interiority of characters through conventional, codified acting techniques but, rather, depicts scenarios in which characters are performing, such as an older woman attempting to impress a potential young lover.  By acknowledging the performances on display as spectacle, and therefore as art, and by capturing them on film in such an objective and unpolished manner, the reality of their representation on screen is heightened.  As Todd Berliner writes, a form of realism is created “not by concealing one’s art but by revealing the similarity between the act of creating art and the act of living”.  By depicting scenes in which the characters might perform in an artificial manner the performances of the actors should seem and be less contrived, thereby giving his films an inherent honesty.

And this approach is mimicked, be it consciously or not, in Love and a Puff.  Not being a Cantonese speaker I do not know if the performances were improvised.  However, the very act of flirting is itself a performance and by focusing primarily on how the two leads engage in this superficial activity the boundaries between the actors’ and the characters’ performances become blurred.  What I mean by this is that Yue and Yeung play their roles as Jimmy and Cherie as characters playing characters as they flirt with one another.  Not only is this a very accurate depiction of how people act, the camera also doesn’t shirk the reality that this is a piece of art being captured.  This is cinéma verité or cinéma direct in its truest sense.

Oh yeah, it also has a cool Blow Out-style false opening.  Definitely Pang’s best film to date.

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