No matter what anyone says or does and no matter how hard Emperor (the film’s production company) tries, the biggest draw to Heiward Mak’s middling twentysomething romantic drama is lead Gillian Chung. Ex is the kind of star vehicle released at Just The Right Time that Emperor excels in forcing into the cultural discourse; let’s not forget this is the organisation that decided to makes stars of Twins — and unfortunately did so. This time around, the goal is rehabilitating Chung’s image — Hong Kong’s own Whore of Babylon. Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last three years you’ll be well aware of Chung’s imbroglio with fellow starlet Edison Chen (any other description for this guy truly escapes me) involving his broken PC and some naughty, hirsute photographs. Were the pictures embarrassing? Sure. Were they career-shatteringly vulgar? Not really. There were no tears and everything looked consensual, so big deal, right? Well, you’re not in Hong Kong. If this were the United States, Chung would be on the talk show circuit apology tour as we speak (and the pics would have been way more vulgar).
So here’s Chung as Zhou Yi, a spirited young woman who gets into a relationship-ending argument with her beau Woody (first mistake? Putting Chung in a film with a character named ‘Woody’) at the airport just prior to a vacation. She winds up — by one of those marvellous coincidences that only happen in movies — crashing at her ex-boyfriend’s place, and at first it seems as though Ping (William Chan) is going to have to brace himself for some Melanie Griffith in Something Wild-type antics. You know: Crazy chick busts into unassuming guy’s life and makes him miserable before he realises he wasn’t really living at all. But put that out of your mind because it doesn’t happen here.
Yi is the perfect ‘stretch’ for Chung in her quasi-comeback: She’s kind of sexy, but never completely sexual; she’s pretty without teetering over into gorgeous; adventurous for Hong Kong while never straying too far off the path of respectability. To her credit Chung is game to give it a go, and that brings us around to mistake number two: Yi/Chung has yonks more charm than Ping/Chan. What Yi is doing wasting her time with a drip like Ping is anyone’s guess.
Writer-director Mak is delving into a female-centric sub-genre that is proving to have some serious box office traction. But she’s not inclined to put a regional spin on the material that could separate it from a boatload of other films like it. There’s plenty of wistful navel-gazing set to plucky vagina music, and if you’re not sure what that entails, imagine a wistful singer-songwriter breathily warbling about the confusion of love (and yes, men can sing vagina music). Mak may not dive headlong into humiliating Katherine Heigl territory, but she does flirt with the temporally disjointed narrative function of (500) Days of Summer. The reaction that inspires? Been there, done that.
South Koreans have dominated the romantic drama market for some time, and so if you’re hoping for a film with women that aren’t perpetually whiny or manipulative look elsewhere. Need proof? When Ping’s current girlfriend Cee (Michelle Wai) begins to feel threatened by Ping and Yi’s long and varied common history she throws herself at his feet, grabs his legs and begs him not to go! WTF? It should be noted that Cee could also do a lot better than the insipid Ping. Ladies… come on.
In another ‘only in the movies’ tradition, Yi and Ping evidently had one of those fiery, object-tossing, surface-punching relationships that was as equally exciting and frustrating. Again … where this kind of intense emotional reservoir lies within Ping is a mystery. It all feels very familiar and not very enlightening, and it’s all carried out in a workaday aesthetic that adds little value to the proceedings. For those who’ve never been here, Hong Kong is a visually vivid space and isn’t exploited nearly enough. Mak could have had a field day with the three-way disconnect but squandered the chance. It makes you want to toss a nearby object.