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by Jay Seaver

"20s to 30s, stage to screen, both good transitions."
4 stars

From the footage shown over the closing credits, writer/director Kearen Pang Sau-wai had been doing "29+1" as a one-woman show on and off for ten years or so prior to making this film, which means that she knows what works very well by now. Fortunately, she also seems to grasp that a fair amount of it wouldn't translate to a conventional film - including, perhaps, that she's aged out of playing a woman about to turn thirty - which means that, while the film she made is likely different from her play, it's nevertheless a nifty movie which takes on the same ideas.

As the film opens, it's 4 March 2005, a month from Christy Lam (Chrissie Chau Sau-na) celebrating her thirtieth birthday. She's successful - just getting promoted to regional marketing director by a tough-to-please boss (Elaine Kam Yin-ling) - has a nice apartment, and she's at a good place with her boyfriend Tsz-ho (Ben Yeung Sheung-bun), even if his cat doesn't much like her. Sure, her father's mind is deteriorating, and that boyfriend may not really like how much she works, and that leak in her flat that just did a number on her handbags may not be an issue much longer because the landlord (Jan Lamb Hoi-fung) sold the place, but he at least found her a spot to stay while she looks for a new home: Wong Tin-lok (Joyce Cheng Yan-yi) is subletting her apartment while she takes a trip to Paris for her birthday, which just so happens to be the same as Christy's.

Given how much Hong Kong movies are directed at the local market these days, Chrissie Chau must have been dealing with some pressure in taking the part of Christy on the big screen, but she's certainly up to it. Chau has a half-dozen or so ways of reacting to the nonsense Christy has to deal with over the course of the movie, and the nuance to capture whether this is a sort of funny aggravation, something more genuinely frustrating, or the sort of experience that genuinely wears a person down. She's good enough at the comedic side of the film to snap from something cheery to a sharp aside, but also able to show the weight of what she's dealing with bearing down on her.

Joyce Cheng's Tin-lok doesn't show up until midway through the movie or so, seemingly introduced as a sort of obvious contrast to Christy: Where Christy has been racing to keep up with a demanding employer and counting calories for her adult life, her plus-sized counterpart has been working at the same record store for the past ten years, living in a messy loft that looks more like a spot for a college student that Christy's sleek, professional space, and likely carrying a torch for best friend Cheung Ho-min (BabyJohn Choi Hon-yik) her entire life. Cheng's got to hint at arrested development while also making sure that Tin-lok is someone someone Christy can learn from, and does a fine job of making Tin-lok's positive attitude something that is deliberate and conscious but not in any way fake, perhaps aided a bit by the audience understanding that what it's seeing of Tin-lok is perhaps what Christy sees in her videos and diaries as much as the actual woman.

For someone whose experience in film is somewhat limited - she's had a few small roles and was one of Pang Ho-cheung's co-writers on <I>Isabella</I>, Kearen Pang's directorial debut is solid. Not having seen the play or read an English translation (if such a thing exists), I can only guess how much she's reworked it, but all indications are that she's made a lot of good decisions based on what works for film versus the stage. She and her cast establish the world around Christy with seeming ease, making it clear she's not isolated but never drowning her out in scenes full of boisterous friends and co-workers, amusingly underlining how her promotion probably ages her more than her birthday in the eyes of the latter. Pang has Christy break the fourth wall with sardonic precision, when she's got something that shouldn't be held in, rather than doing it every time she can, and she plays with flashbacks, speed-ups, rewinds, and other filmic storytelling tricks to generally good effect. She's clever enough to know when to trust her cast and audience to get when she's doing something non-standard or countering what she'd been doing for the rest of the movie, like a great shot at the end of the movie where Christy turns and seems like she's about to address the camera, but instead seems to be processing where her life has gone.

At times, that can seem like a lot of neat tricks, Pang adding adornment to what could be a too-familiar story of growing a bit older and freaking out about it. And while there are moments when it feels that way, there are many more when she and Chrissie Chau make Christy much more than her impending birthday and Joyce Cheng gets a lot out of someone who is the very definition of a side character. "29+1" may be built out of common worries about getting older, but it shines in large part by becoming quite entertainingly individual.

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originally posted: 05/31/17 03:47:59
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  25-May-2017 (PG)

Directed by
  Kearen Pang

Written by
  Kearen Pang

  Chrissie Chau
  Joyce Cheng
  Babyjohn Choi
  Benjamin Yeung
  Elaine Kam

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