Love in the Buff

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/09/12 07:31:45

"No smoke, same amount of fire."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The vagaries of North American release patterns of foreign films have resulted in "Love in the Buff" reaching theaters here before "Love in a Puff", the movie to which it is a sequel, has been available on anything but import DVD and a few film festivals. It should play well enough as an audience's first encounter with the characters, although it's a lot easier to be invested if one has seen the original movie.

Cherie (Miriam Yeung Chin-wah) and Jimmy (Shawn Yue) have been dating for about five months, and it's starting to come apart. It's not so much the ten years Cherie has on her twenty-something boyfriend as the things that go with it - she's a bit jealous, he's prioritizing work and telling little lies, that sort of thing. When they break up, that makes Jimmy accepting a job in Beijing easier. As fate would have it, Cherie winds up transferred there a few months later, where she finds Jimmy has already started dating You-you (Mini Yang), the attendant on his flight from Hong Kong. It's not too long before she meets Sam (Zheng Xu), who is everything that Jimmy isn't. And as much as both seem better off with their new partners, it's almost inevitable that they will be drawn back toward each other.

Sequels to romantic comedies are tricky things; in most other genres, it's not hard to create a new challenge or raise the stakes, while the act of resetting to zero can sour the audience on the very notion of the couple reuniting. In some ways, Love in the Buff may actually work better in some ways for audiences who haven't seen the first; they're not burdened with any attachment to how the pair met during smoke breaks and quit nicotine but not each other and are more free to wonder whether Cherie's and Jimmy's relationship was the real thing or just a learning experience. Director Pang Ho-cheung and co-writer Luk Yee-sum do an impressive job of making the story something that could go either way even for returning audiences; it's well-enough built that the audience can't take things for granted.

Pang and Luk have more than just heavy emotions for the audience, though. The movie opens with a very funny montage of ill-fated relationships, and has a bunch of great, amusing bits along the way. The open-air market for matchmakers - which, for all I know, is a real Beijing thing - is delightfully odd and leads to more good stuff. Many of the jokes almost certainly play better for Chinese audiences, being based on local pop culture and language barriers (with the number of movies splitting time between Hong Kong and Beijing these days, some convention for telling Cantonese from Mandarin in subtitles might be handy), although most bits work well enough even if you don't know exactly what the thing that runs over the credits is based on.

The filmmakers manage a nice balance of cinematic comedy and honest relationship issues, and the cast is a big part of that. Miriam Yeung, in particular, is terrific; she's funny, sure, but she also does a great job of making Cherie the mature, intelligent one without sacrificing her ability to be a youthful wiseass. Shawn Yue is pretty good too, playing a character on the cusp of maturity well. Their new opposite numbers are a pleasant enough pair, with both Zheng Xu and Mini Yang showing just enough substance that we can buy their characters as believable alternatives for Cherie and Jimmy. June Lam and Huang Xiaoming have a subplot that's funny enough that it would be nice to see more of them.

Pang's direction is impressive in a low-key way; he does a lot of little things that enhance the storytelling, from the direction Cherie faces during karaoke to how he seems to send a signal by moving from a dark environment to a well-lit one early. In some ways, that's a symbol of how different Love in the Buff is from its predecessor: Where Love in a Puff was Hong Kong through-and-through - shot quickly and cheaply during Dream Home's post-production, with a grainy look that increased during faux-interview segments and emphasized the characters' working-class lives - Love in the Buff is slick and bright, tending to play up how wonderful the new China is with plenty of conspicuous consumption. The glossy, prosperous Beijing is sort of expected from Chinese movie by now, but the obvious product placement and the cuts taken at Hong Kong are kind of an odd switch for Pang.

So the style, setting, and tone have changed, but Pang, Yeung, and Yue still work very well together. It's tough to get a second movie out of a romantic comedy storyline, but they do a good enough job that "Love in the Buff" will likely work even it's the first time the audience meets this couple.

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