Rating: 4 out of 5
A few months ago, as part of the publicity for my last play, a TV crew came to the studio where I was rehearsing, to shoot an excerpt from the play for an arts programme.
Midway through the filming, the reporter asked me if I could get my lead actor to do the scene without smoking, as it was “against the rules” for her to show anyone – even a fictional character - lighting up before the cameras.
I acquiesced, but begrudgingly so. I realised then how powerful and insidious the global anti-smoking movement had become. It was forcing artists to reflect a false world, a sanitised world where no one indulges in the pernicious habit of smoking.
In this context, Hong Kong writer-director Pang Ho Cheung’s latest film, Love in a Puff, arrives as a good-naturedly rebellious and artistically invigorating breath of fresh air.
(I was surprised, given the amount of smoking portrayed in the film, that Singapore’s puritanical censors hadn’t slapped an R21 rating on it.)
The film is a romantic comedy that dispenses with the usual corny formulations – the shallow characterisations and implausible story arcs – perpetrated by Hollywood (See The Bounty Hunter for the latest abomination.)
Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue play Cherie and Jimmy, two ordinary Hong Kongers who meet in that most common and underrated of social institutions: the smoking area.
Cherie is a cosmetics salesgirl; Jimmy a marketing manager. They meet, smoke, and begin a courtship that is as real as anything I’ve ever seen on celluloid.
Cherie has a boyfriend of five years, a dullard endowed with little charm and even less heart.
Jimmy is single; his ex has dumped him for a greasy Frenchman, after accusing Jimmy of being immature and unmanly.
Nursing these bitter but ordinary wounds, Cherie and Jimmy talk and tease each other out of their indifferent love lives, often on the pretext of taking cigarette breaks. Being typical Asian urbanites, they also exchange a prodigious number of text messages.
Love inevitably blossoms, but in a manner that avoids the usual genre clichés.
Yeung and Yue share a playful chemistry that anchors the film, delivering Pang’s ostensibly mundane dialogue with cheerful aplomb.
Pang himself pulls off something of a stylistic coup by skilfully incorporating visual and musical tropes influenced by French New cinema. He even peppers the film with ‘interviews’ of his characters speaking directly and candidly to a shaky hand-held camera.
The result is an unusual, unsentimental movie, full of heart, soul and understanding of the rites of romance in our contemporary urban jungle.
And it was probably made possible by the sponsors at Camel and Lucky Strike. Screw the anti-smoking lobby, right? It makes for better, more honest work.
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and Kidnapper (2010). Kidnapper premiered in Singapore last month and will be released in Malaysia on May 13.