By Simon Abrams | Press Play March 29, 2012 at 8:32AM
For a few months now, China Lion Entertainment has been better in theory than in practice. For those that missed my Lunar New Year piece: China Lion is an American distributor of popular contemporary Chinese and Hong Kong films. Until this week and with the notable exceptions of some interesting but inconsistent melodramas like Aftershock and Love in Space, China Lion had yet to release a film worth recommending without serious reservations. China Lion films typically don't leave you with any resonant emotions beyond superficial first impressions. They're fluffy, and, even in the extreme case of Aftershock, a family drama about two generations of Tangshan Great Earthquake survivors, there's very little gravity to them.
Thankfully, with the release of Love in the Buff, Hong Kong co-writer/director Ho-cheung Pang's (aka: Edmond Pang) sequel to the equally moving and light romcom Love in a Puff, China Lion has finally released something worth recommending (China Lion never released Love in a Puff, presumably because it originally released when the company, which focuses mostly on first-run features, did not exist in 2010).
Love in the Buff follows a young former couple as they try to meet other people while struggling to get back together. Like many of Pang's previous offbeat comedies, Love in the Buff is a movie about storytelling and the cumulative effect of white lies. Pang's young lovers tell each other stories about people they know and about each other, like the one about the girl with a lover's pube stuck in her bracelet or the plain-looking blind date whose mother claims he looks like In the Mood for Love star Tony Leung Chiu-wai (the man explains that his mother only meant that he is as tall as Leung). In telling these small, incestuously inter-related fictions, Pang's characters create the lives they want to lead out of the unremarkable ones they currently live.
That heady concept is developed at the start of Love in a Puff, in which Cherie Yu (Miriam Yeung) and Jimmy Cheung (Shawn Yue), two soon-to-be lovers, meet while huddled over a trash can for a smoke (in 2009, a law in Hong Kong was passed that banned smoking in office buildings and some public parks, too). Pang frames the romance in Love in the Buff similarly by showing Cherie and Jimmy chatting conspiratorially about a mutual friend. No matter how hard their mutual friend tries to protect her boyfriends, they all inexplicably die, or so the story goes. One dies after doing laundry at a Laundromat so the friend buys a washer machine. But her next boyfriend falls to his death from a window while hanging laundry up to dry at home, and so on.
So unlike Love in a Puff, which started with a story about a man being trapped in a trunk and the aforementioned pube anecdote, Love in the Buff starts with a personal, fatalistic myth of Cherie and Jimmy's "Black Widow" friend. You don't have to know who Cherie and Jimmy are or where they are in their relationship after the events of Love in a Puff because Pang has just had his jaded lovers tell us. They're scared of losing each other, an anxiety that soon proves to be self-fulfilling.
In the Love in the ____ series, Cherie and Jimmy relate to each other and people in general primarily through character-embellishing tall tales. So it's not surprising that, even after the couple drifts apart in Love in the Buff when Jimmy announces that he has to move to Beijing for work, Cherie and he still both remake their lives based on little fictions. And when Cherie and Jimmy's friends and loved ones can't meet the high expectations that the set up in Cherie and Jimmy's private stories, the nee personality traits that hey exhibit become the raw material for new stories.
For instance, Jimmy starts dating a Beijing girl named You-You (Mini Yang), a flight attendant, after she promises to repay a favor that Jimmy did for her by helping him "in bed." While Jimmy's thinking he'll get laid, You-You actually just wants to meet at a trendy bar where patrons are served food and drink in beds. But bear in mind: Jimmy only meets You-You after Eunuch tells him a yarn about flight attendants, saying that stewardesses can be sexually harassed twice before there are serious repercussions for their molester. A man sitting behind Eunuch overhears this and tries to grope one of You-You's fellow stewardesses. He immediately gets caught however since Eunuch was, uh, apparently mistaken! So Jimmy decides to meet You-You at the bed bar and checks to see if Eunuch’s new theory (Eunuch insists that You-You is sexually aroused by Jimmy) is true. But he only does this after Eunuch's story about groping women proves to be untrue.
The opposite dynamic is true of Cherie's post-Jimmy search for love. She first tries matchmakers that hook her up with their sons, like the one that misrepresents her son as a Tony Leung look-alike. But then, when another blind date turns out to actually match his mother's description, Cherie winds up stuck fishing her cell phone out of a public toilet while her best friend, now clearly enamored with a Huang Xiaoming look-alike (actually played by Hong Kong actor Huang Xiaoming), hits on Cherie's intended date. So Cherie winds up meeting Sam (Xu Zheng) instead, a guy she later realizes she wants to date because she thinks he is, personality-wise, Jimmy's complete opposite.
But the situation Cherie's in when she dates Sam is not an inversion of when she first started to date Jimmy in Love in a Puff. In fact, it's just like the circumstances that led Jimmy and Cherie to originally date each other. Whereas Jimmy chose to date Cherie knowing that she was already seeing somebody, Cherie is now cheating on Sam with Jimmy while Jimmy cheats on You-You with Cherie. Everybody's telling a different story in Love in the Buff, making it both a knotty and accomplished variation on Puff's meta-textual main theme and a very clever and resonant romantic comedy unto itself. This: this is the China Lion film to see.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.