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Women Who Flirt
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by Jay Seaver

"Might be more clever than it initially appears to be."
4 stars

"Women Who Flirt" (or, to use its full Chinese name, "Women Who Know How to Flirt Are the Luckiest") teeters on the edge of being the sort of romantic comedy that doesn't respect its primary target audience of women much at all, depicting them as all about landing a man via manipulation, even when theoretically trying to say the opposite. Even when "two girls fight over a guy" mostly works, as it does here, a more progressive or individual story might be nice.

The guy is "Marco" Gong Xiao (Huang Xiaoming), a nice-enough seeming Shanghai lad who works with long-time friend "Angie" Zhang Hui (Zhou Xun); she has had a crush on him since at least college but never made a move because he didn't plan to date until he could provide for his father. That changes when he comes back from a trip to Taiwan with Hailey (Sonia Sui Ta), a pretty young thing who seemed to flirt her way into Marco's life in a way that doesn't come naturally to the straightforward Angie. Fortunately for her, her best friend May (Xie Yilin) knows this stuff cold, and her "Barbie Army" is there to help.

In a lot of ways, Women Who Flirt director Pang Ho-cheung doesn't stray far from that romantic comedy template of the girl unpretentious enough to be just one of the guys having to figure out how to beat one who instinctually knows how to use her feminine wiles at her own game. That costs the movie at times; Angie, Marco, and Hailey don't differentiate themselves that much from other versions of the Cinderella story enough for their individual actions to be the source of much suspense or surprise, even if some of the details are clever or funny. The movie is heading toward a fairly predestined end, although it deserves a bit of credit for the way it handles some of the stops along the way.

Actually, it handles a lot of stops along the way well. Consider how Pang punctuates the movie with a series of dinner dates Angie and Marco share - there are four or five in all, staged differently enough that the pattern isn't necessarily obvious, but they all say something about them. The second, where Angie meets Hailey for the first time, is kind of ingenious for how well it builds Hailey's "bitch who must be destroyed" bona fides despite her not displaying any of the obvious malice Angie is. He and his crew tie things together in ways that seem to reinforce each other, like the visual link between Angie's notebook scribblings and Ju Ming, a sculptor she greatly admires.

Pang and his co-writers don't get the chance to be quite so weird or blue in this Mandarin-language movie as they do in their Hong Kong-based efforts, which is a bit of a shame - a joke about how Angie got Marco's father porn for his birthday seems like the start of a riff from the maker of Vulgaria, but it doesn't exactly launch from there. Still, the script does occasionally have some teeth and also goes to weird and/or clever places - Pang will do things like drop a clangingly obvious Ghost reference early on that disguises just how peculiar the later riff on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is. The big romantic speech at the end seems entirely wrong-headed, but it kind of works even if it isn't guided to the right place. If Angie and Marco start out kind of stupid about each other, and that's part of the appeal of the pair, they should maybe remain kind of stupid about each other.

That can work, after all, if they are being portrayed by funny people, as is the case. Zhou Xun isn't always perfectly charming as Angie - there are moments when her awkwardness is not the adorable type and it's not clear that's what she and Pang are going for - but she can light up the screen when the time is right even while getting barbed jokes in without sounding glib. Huang Xiaoming plays off her well, especially in casual moments or flashbacks to the characters' college days (enough so that one goofy scene can show why Angie is so hung up on Marco without a heartfelt explanation), and can sell jokes quite well indeed. Sonia Su Ta makes for a fine rival, with the silliness of Hailey working equally well viewed at face value and as a ploy. And Xie Yilin is an MVP as May, making all sorts of the jokes awful people make but showing just enough loyalty to Angie that we can laugh without diminishing her tartness. They do give her too many sidekicks, though - the Barbie Army is two kind of funny jokes, but four of these girls don't work as well as one in most scenes.

I must admit, I kind of wonder what a Cantonese, Hong Kong-set "Women Who Flirt" would be like - this one occasionally seems to be held back a bit. This one is better than it first appears to be, at least, maybe not quite subverting the formula it's built on, but often having the brains to tweak it while still getting laughs from the parts that work.

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originally posted: 11/27/14 17:20:50
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Directed by
  Ho-Cheung Pang

Written by
  Ho-Cheung Pang

  Xun Zhou
  Xiaoming Huang
  Sonia Sui
  Yilin Xie

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