Writer-director Pang Ho-cheung perhaps didn’t set out to make Hong Kong’s own version of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, but he’s done just that with the third and (soft maybe) last installment of his own film series, following two young professionals struggling with romance. Starting with the social reorganization brought on by the city’s smoking ban in 2010’s Love in a Puff, and then economic realignment in Love in the Buff (set in Beijing) in 2012, Love Off the Cuff picks up five years later, with a new set of hurdles for the central lovers to clear. Based on the enthusiastic response from the audience at the pic’s world premiere opening the 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival, a strong performance is all but guaranteed at home, and in other parts of Asia-Pacific where the first two films found warm receptions. Specialty release overseas and festival play are assured given the built-in viewership, and streaming services could be the perfect entry for new viewers; a binge of all three is just waiting to happen.
Love Off the Cuff picks up with Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and Cherie (Miriam Yeung) living together, relatively happily, even if Jimmy still has trouble giving the relationship real respect, and Cherie and her contradictory demands still a bit tough to live with. They’re put to further stress tests, first when her father (Paul Chun) drops into town out of the blue with an extremely young new fiancee in tow, and then when his childhood friend, the “liberal Canadian” Flora (Jiang Meng-jie), comes for a visit. Flora wants Jimmy to father a baby, forcing the couple to confront the lingering doubts they harbor about their shared future, culminating in a disastrous trip to Taipei (which is based on Pang’s time in Tokyo in 2011).
The third time is indeed a charm.
That really is all there is to the narrative, as Pang and returning co-writer Luk Yee-sum and series newcomer Jimmy Wan are less interested in plot machinations than they are with simply watching Jimmy and Cherie struggle mightily with the resonant insecurities, revelations, fears and hopes raised by everything that swirls around them. Cherie worries that Flora’s going to prance around the apartment in her bra — until she glances at Flora and snarks, “No matter. She doesn’t wear a bra,” and Jimmy is indignant at her peeking at his phone messages. By the same token, Pang takes the time to highlight the moments that make things worthwhile, like Cherie appreciating Jimmy’s patience with her mother’s mobile phone ineptitude, their amused solidarity in light of her dad’s PDAs and the easy intimacy they share. Love Off the Cuff’s little parts add up to a much greater whole.
That’s not to say the other plot machinations Pang and Co. cook up aren’t typically outrageous, scatological, lewd or downright bonkers. Perhaps fearing his loyal audience will be bored of so much more of the same — though that’s precisely what everyone will be paying for — the director opens the film with an extended prologue pivoting on a Hunger Games-type turn-of-the-century lottery that will provide a local monster (hair, drool, razor-sharp teeth, the works) with a child to eat. It’s part of a story Cherie recalls her mother telling her as a kid, but it unfolds with no explanation, signaling Pang’s willingness to head proudly out on a nonsensical limb in service of his larger story. It also signals the eventual appearance of aliens (the film’s winning “WTF?” moment) and an impromptu musical marriage proposal that looks like something from Vegas-period Elvis. In anyone else’s hands, these sequences could be awkward and unfunny, but Pang’s signature absurdist vision envelops real emotion that underpins the movie and gives it its heart and soul.
None of that would be of any use, of course, were Yeung and Yue not so completely engaging as Cherie and Jimmy. The chemistry they demonstrated in the first film has only gotten stronger as time has gone on, with each looking wholly comfortable as their alter egos. Love Off the Cuff is easily the most nuanced performance from both Yeung and Yue, though they’ve never lost their characters’ empathetic recognizability that made the earlier films so popular.
The requisite colorful language (Cantonese speakers will be at a bit of an advantage) complements ace technical specs — including cinematographer Chou Yi-Hsien’s clever exploitation of Hong Kong’s overwhelming and sometimes alienating urban maze — and a stand-out supporting cast (Cherie’s girl posse very nearly steals the show) that forces the episodic film to hang together by sheer force of will. But hang together it does. Whether or not the trilogy turns into a quadrilogy remains to be seen, though Pang has left the door wide open for another entry.
Production company: Making Film
Cast: Shawn Yue, Miriam Yeung, Paul Chun, Jiang Meng-jie, Siu Yam-yam, Derek Tsang, Toby Lee, Dada Chan
Director: Pang Ho-cheung
Screenwriter: Pang Ho-cheung, Jimmy Wan, Luk Yee-sum
Producer: Pang Ho-cheung, Subi Liang
Executive producer: Peter Lam, La Peikang, Shirley Lau
Director of photography: Chou Yi-Hsien
Production designer: Man Lim-chung, Lee Kwok-lam
Costume designer: Polly Chan
Editor: Wenders Li
Music: Alan Wong, Janet Yung, Peter Kam
Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival
World sales: Media Asia
In Cantonese and Putonghua