Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Smokeless Romance: Love in the Buff

It was smoking that brought together Cherie Yu and Jimmy Cheung, but it might be everything else in life that splits them apart. They met during cigarette breaks soon after Hong Kong workplaces went smoke-free in Pang Ho-cheung’s Love in a Puff. Unfortunately, work and time undermine their romance in Pang’s completely stand-alone sequel Love in the Buff (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It seems the couple has quit smoking to judge from Buff, but that might be the only responsible thing Cheung has done in his personal life. He has gotten serious about his career, but at the cost of his relationship with Yu. She is something of his mirror image, ready to make a commitment to him, but sleepwalking through her days working retail for Sephora. Eventually, they break-up, with a shrug rather than a bang. That lack of definitive closure will become an issue for them both when they later cross paths again in Beijing.

Transferred by their companies (for very different reasons), the ex-lovers planned to start fresh on the Mainland. Each will find a significant other who would seem much better suited to their respective temperaments. Yet, before long, they have reverted to form, sneaking around with each other behind their partners’ backs.

Do not get the wrong idea. The “Buff” in the title is only really there because it rhymes with “Puff.” In truth, Buff is about as risqué an average episode of Friends, perhaps even less so. Yet, it is definitely a film for adult sensibilities (in the best sense of the term). In fact, Pang’s treatment of their relationship issues and dynamics is brutally honest and at times rather caustic.

As a result, viewers will feel acute sympathy for the deceived lovers. Indeed, the earnestness of the beautiful Shang You-you and Sam, the gentlemanly divorcee, will make viewers want to see them get together instead. However, Buff is too sincere for such “change partners” gimmicks (though there are a number of novelty cameos from Chinese/HK celebrities that will be largely lost on American audiences).

Instead of trying to be compulsively likable, Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue are consistently maddening in a very realistic down-to-earth way as Yu and Cheung, respectively. They really convey a sense of flawed chemistry that is so central to the film. Not simply set decoration, Mini (Mi) Yang projects a tangible needy vulnerability that should have quite the effect on audiences. As for Xu Zheng’s Sam, well okay, he is rather likable.

At times Buff approaches the edge of melodrama, yet always pulls back at the last minute, just in the way people do in real life every day. Altogether, it is a well written look at the pitfalls of romance with a highly attractive cast and an appealingly swinging soundtrack. Recommended for movie-goers looking for something smart but not too heavy, Love in the Buff opens this Friday (3/30) in New York at the AMC Empire and AMC Village 7 as well as in San Francisco at the AMC Metreon, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.