Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 16, 2011 9:09 am 
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Miriam Yeung Chin Wah and Shawn Yue in Love in a Puff

Smoking restrictions lead to urban romance

The girl has mauve hair, an indication of the hipness of this couple who first meet on a smoke break in a Hong Kong alleyway. He's in advertising; she sells cosmetics. And his shirt is the same color, signaling an affinity this movie seeks to explore. A Hong Kong ordinance prohibited smoking in all indoor areas. Employees began gathering in cliques they called "hot pot packs" to smoke outdoors, talk, and have fun. That's the starting point. There's much camaraderie and banter -- liberally laced with profanity -- among the "hot pot pack" that includes a man with round glasses, a girl with a knit cap, a Pakistani pizza man, a little uniformed hotel bellman -- and the couple-to-be, Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and Cherie (Miriam Yeung Chin Wah). The movie begins with a dramatization of a shaggy dog story about a man locked in car trunk in a parking lot who turns out to be a ghost. There's a lot of joking round, and things stay very light, becoming just a little romantic when Jimmy joins Cherie at a costume birthday party at a Karaoke bar -- except Cherie turns out to have a boyfriend, KK (Jo Kuk).

Eventually he finds out about Jimmy (and we see how much fun he and Cherie are having together) and he gets jealous. Love in a Puff shows how romantic text messaging can be -- and how it can give away secrets if spied on. And when Cherie decides to switch to Jimmy's network so her SMS fees aren't too high, Jimmy's cohorts at work say she's too aggressive. Jimmy has just had a breakup with a girlfriend at work, and Cherie is older. These are the givens that do nothing but fuel the mutual attraction.

This movie excels in its constant interplay of lightness and seriousness, in the way the milieu and the social world is sketched in, and in the great chemistry between Yeung and Yue. Their dialogue is breezy and sometimes touching. Dialogue in group scenes is feisty and provocative by sometimes strict Hong Kong standards; Love in a Puff caused some controversy, which could add to its hip gloss for locals. Some of the whimsy recalls romantic moments in Wong Kar-wai; it's all more mundane, but enough to show that Wong's tropes are far from unique and sometimes come from Hong Kong pop culture.

If only Pang had taken more breaks from the sit-com charm and stepped back a little, he might have created a bit more magic. There is a hint of that in a silhouette-and-full-moon sequence of Cherie at the 80-minute mark, when the story reaches its make-or-break get-serious point. At film's end, the couple come to some kind of commitment, with Jimmy's Land Rover stalled on an overpass, appropriately enough by making serious plans to both give up smoking, and focus on each other.

The apparent triviality of the subject matter, along with the modern urban couple's difficulty with communication (despite multiple platforms) is offset by wit and keen observation of little details every step of the way. This light, cinematic, amusing movie is appealing and fresh -- and has an assured polish, along with casual touches, like the little small-screen 16mm interviews that serve as occasional commentary. All in all, Love in a Puff is a delightful little piece of fluff, as casual as its lovers try to be. One online critic listed this film as one of his top movies of 2010 and characterized it as "forgettable in an unforgettable way," and that's about right. Not all will like this; Asian film critic Derek Elley called it "peculiarly pointless" and "progressively boring." Local commentaries say the film won't work dubbed in Mandarin because its Cantonese profanities are untranslatable and had the audiences in stitches throughout. Subtleties apart, the English titles give a fair sense of this pungency. Some little SMS tricks emerge too: for instance, if you type "i n 55!W !" it looks like nonsense or code, but turn the phone upside down and it reads "I MISS U!" Of such details are Puff's flavor and charm made.

After its initially rocky debut in Hong Kong due to its profanity and heavy nicotine use, Love in a Puff has breezed along the festival route, appearing in Seattle, Melbourne, Tokyo, Palm Springs, landing in April 2011 at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was screened for this review. The original Chinese title is Chi ming yu chun giu/志明與春嬌 which means simply Jimmy and Cherie. I was not previously familiar with the work of this prolific 2000's Hong Kong director.

Love in a PUff, 101 mins., opened in Hong Kong 24 March 2010.It was screened for this review as part of the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival, where it showed 28 and 30 April 2011.

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