May 17, 2010 / 11:10 PM / 9 years ago

"Puff" a lively sketch of Hong Kong smoking culture

HONG KONG (Hollywood Reporter) - A eulogy to lung pollution, “Love in a Puff” makes sharing a pack of cigarettes look sexier than sharing a bed as it chronicles how two chain smokers fall in love over a week in the wake of a government crackdown on tobacco in Hong Kong.

While smokers can relish the nicotine nirvana created by every smog-filled frame, even non-smokers will be riveted by director Pang Ho-Cheung’s wry dramatization of a bona fide smoking sub-culture among Hong Kong urbanites with an inventive use of colloquial obscene discourse.

Given a restrictive rating excluding the under-18 demographic, the film scored a so-so $515,000 within two weeks of domestic release, but generated critical hype for its fresh and adult way of handling romance.

It’s hard to recall any film that makes refuse bins a sizzling dramatic focal point. Yet in “Love,” one witnesses the curious phenomenon of “Chinese hotpot” — the activity of people from different backgrounds gathering around a public bin near their offices to smoke and swap tall tales and dirty jokes — an after-effect of a law banning indoor smoking in 2007.

At one such session, a spark is ignited between cosmetics lady Cherie (Miriam Yeung) and advertising executive Jimmy (Shawn Yue). They keep making excuses to see each other until Cherie’s live-in boyfriend notices something fishy. Whether the protagonists finally take the plunge to be together is of less interest than the painfully truthful way Pang depicts their suggestive body language, their guessing games and how their spontaneous rapport is offset by calculated moves to avoid being hurt.

Adeptly paced, there are no big dramas, just slyly droll vignettes like Jimmy wheedling Cherie’s mobile number out of her, or the hidden meaning found in an SMS, or their night out raiding convenience stores to buy up all their cigarettes a few hours before tobacco tax skyrockets. These are punctuated by mock-documentary interviews with their friends, which has the juvenile feel of student films. Technical credits are ordinary but outdoor scenes have a zingy, bustling feel.

By reveling in political incorrectness, sexual obscenity and defiantly homegrown verbal profanity, Pang blows a big raspberry at the local film industry, now fettered by considerations about the China market (and consequently its censorship system). However, some of his typical smart alecky gags backfire.

The salacious details in which Jimmy’s colleagues describe his girlfriend’s infidelity are smutty but not funny. The tone in a scenario where Cherie’s friend Brenda is stood up by her Facebook date is downright mean, yet Pang degrades her further in post-credit shots of her keening wails.

The film partly owes its offbeat humor and candor to emerging writer-director Heiward Mak, who co-wrote the screenplay. Her youthful perspective can be detected in the dialogue, which pins down the restless pulse of Hong Kong’s so-called ‘”instant cook” culture of speedy dating with uncanny accuracy.

The happy-go-lucky Cherie is played fetchingly by Yeung. She is the most sympathetic and least objectified heroine among Pang’s films. Yue is just right as the regular guy capable of both chivalry and commitment phobia.

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