August 8, 2013
Love in a Puff – Hong Kong, 2010
Ho-Cheung Pang’s sweet film Love in a Puff is about two people that would never have had the opportunity to meet had attitudes about health remained unchanged. But change they did, and so January 1, 2007, ushered in a new era for the millions of smokers in Hong Kong. In the film’s opening scene, we see that Hong Kong’s new law has pushed smokers out of their comfortable work spaces and into occasionally cold back alleys and thin side streets. However, it has also placed them in new hereto non-existent communities. In narrow, occasionally cramped spaces, groups comprised of secretaries, managers, chefs, and janitors from surrounding buildings huddle together around a makeshift ashtray and pass their break time together for perhaps the first time.
Under circumstances such as this, it is only natural for their conversation to be light and safe, and as they stand around smoking, they swap tales of supernatural events or eerie coincidences, many of them featured recently on popular television shows. Each person takes turns telling a story, but when it comes to one man, the only anecdote he can think of involves a co-worker and the embarrassing discovery of his girlfriend’s infidelity. Juicy, but not entirely appropriate.
It is at this meeting that Jimmy (Shawn Yue), the unfortunate victim in the man’s sordid tale, eventually meets Cherie (Mariam Yeung Chih Wah), whose stylishly colored hair and casual attitude hint at a modern, gentle spirit. Their first meeting is brief and ends almost as quickly as it begins. Their second meeting is a step in the right direction. They take a walk, talk about unidentified flying objects, and exchange contact information. They make enough of an impression on each other that the very next day we see them sending a barrage of text messages back and forth. These messages result in their next meeting, and it is during this one that we get a hint of the bond that is rapidly forming between them. And like many of the first signs of budding love, it comes in the form of a whisper rather than a thunderclap. The scene, set in karaoke bar and containing an array of colorful lights and moving shadows, is perfectly shot, and it is no wonder that Cherie feels at ease resting her head on Jimmy’s shoulder. It is a magical beginning, and the rest should be easy. It never is, of course.
Love in a Puff is an excellent example of the kind of movie that more people should see. Like My Dinner with Andre and Before Sunrise, it is a film driven by the dialogue of its central characters, and what there is in the way of drama is perfectly believable for people in their situation. The most naysayers could say about the film’s central tale is that it all happens so quickly. However, the characters themselves utter those same sentiments, and their rationale for going as fast as they do makes so much sense that it’s amazing someone else hadn’t thought of it sooner.
The film also perfectly captures romance and communication in these times. Cell phones are everywhere, and they are used realistically. After seeing the film, I couldn’t help thinking that cell phones are now the tool through which people send both self-introductions and love letters. Years ago, a shy boy might have handed a handwritten letter to a girl he liked and scurried off before she had a chance to respond. Now he may send her an invitation to his Facebook account or text the kind of message that he would be too shy to say directly. It doesn’t seem all that different.
There are two potential problem areas for the film. The first one is the unwise insertion of snippets of a documentary about either the anti-smoking law or the budding romance. The purpose of the documentary is never fully explained, and other than one interesting revelation concerning the events that led Cherie to start smoking, these moments do not go anywhere significant. The other is screenwriters Heiward Mak and Ho-Cheung Pang’s inability to resist adding below-the-belt, cigarette-inspired comedy to the film. These moments may play well in Hong Kong, but they are unlikely to garner many laughs in countries in which smoking is viewed as a bad habit, even by smokers themselves. However, give the movie credit here, too. Here is a film about two people that smoke that goes out of its way not to glorify the habit in any way. In fact, one of the film’s recurring motifs involves giving up the habit for love.
Love in a Puff is a strong film about extremely likeable characters that I grew to root for a great deal, and I am eagerly looking forward to seeing its 2012 sequel, Love in the Buff.
3 and a half stars
*Love in a Puff is in Cantonese with English subtitles.