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Love in a Puff
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by Jay Seaver

"WARNING: Smoking is much more likely to bring you cancer than true love."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Pang Ho-cheung made "Love in a Puff" during post-production for "Dream Home", and though there are some certain stylistic ties - the groups huddled together for their cigarette breaks that are central to "Love in a Puff" show up in "Dream Home", both start by telling us something about Hong Kong that serves as a major influence on the action, and both make a point of their timeframes while doing this or that to avoid being strictly linear - they wind up causing opposite reactions. This is the one that's romantic and charming.

Jimmy Cheung (Shawn Yue) is a young guy getting his start in advertising; Cherie Chu (Mirian Yeung Chin-wah) is a little bit older, selling cosmetics in a retail shop. They're both smokers, and Hong Kong's tough anti-tobacco laws cause people in the same area to congregate in small groups that have little in common but their addiction. Still, they hit it off, and while Jimmy is single (the humiliating story behind that is a popular one among their group, at least until Jimmy shows up), Cherie isn't, although her boyfriend Carl (Wong Tak-bun) will soon start to wonder what is up with the texts and calls from the new man on Cherie's contact list.

Love in a Puff takes place over the course of a week - an unusually specific week, mid-February of 2007, and in some ways, that feels awfully short; it requires that Jimmy and Cherie (and Carl) to go through a fair number of relationship stages in a relatively short period of time. Of course, that's part of what's clever about the movie - Pang shows how modern communications can accelerate romance and other relationships for good or ill, and how such things are now a part of modern life. There's a little thread about how Cherie considers changing her mobile phone provider to get more favorable rates on texting and calling Jimmy, and though a big deal isn't made of it, it's a nice little detail.

Not all of Pang's techniques are so transparent; the film will occasionally cut away from directly observing Cherie and Jimmy for documentary-style interview footage with them or the other smokers, and while that's generally well-done and often amusing, it's rather superfluous. Those scenes tend to exaggerate the low-budget look of the film with their grain and muted colors, although it's worth noting that the movie as a whole isn't quite so low-fi as it sometimes looks: Although Love in a Puff has a strong indie-film feel, with its cameras that get right in the middle of its characters' circles and what feels like available lighting, it's shot remarkably well, especially considering that much of its action takes place at night or in tight alleys.

Of course, no romance worth the name can get by entirely on technique, and this one's got a pair of would-be lovers who are well worth watching. Miriam Yeung Chin-wah and Shawn Yue (and their characters) have a bit of an age difference between them, but they and Pang opt not to make it an overt source of insecurity, though there are telling differences in how they approach each other. The film tends to highlight the way that they are similar rather than different; they're both impulsive, with a tendency to perhaps reach just a little too far when teasing. They also do well in showing the pair as immediately affectionate as opposed to obsessed passion; others might push too hard.

It also lets them slide into very funny situations, which Pang and co-writer Heiward Mak are able to conjure in abundance. The back-and-forth between Jimmy, Cherie, and the rest is often bawdy and crude, but with a fun rhythm to it. Characters get into goofy misadventures, often connected to their smoking but on occasion just arising from life being peculiar. The last act of the movie takes place against the certainly true-to-life backdrop of everybody trying to stock up on cigarettes on the last night before a higher tax rate goes into effect, a frantic but wholly believable situation.

Cigarettes have long been crutches filmmakers use to show movie characters as active during static shots of conversation, and "Love in a Puff" embraces and calls attention to that in a way that few movies do. Fortunately, the people conversing between drags are fun to watch, making for a quite nice romantic comedy.

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originally posted: 09/17/10 02:49:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Pang Ho-cheung

Written by
  Pang Ho-cheung
  Heiward Mak

  Miriam Yeung
  Shawn Yue

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