The Fantastic Water Babes (出水芙蓉)

fantab water babes

I usually wouldn’t enjoy a film with a title like this, unless it was a biopic about Gertrude Ederle or a documentary about competitive female swimmers and body image. It’s neither, so I’m surprised that I found the movie palatable.

Praise needs qualifying though, lots of it. For starters, no one’s watching this movie for plot. The eponymous water babes, Gill (Chung) and Mei Mei (Ma) – and their attendants (Chau and Huang), are at odds because Gill’s boyfriend is cheating on her with Mei Mei. Gill tries to drown herself but comes to her senses when she spies the sea deity Guanyin (Olympic diver cum actor Tian).

This may not stop the average Hong Konger from ending his or her life, but Gill is from Cheung Chau, an idyllic island most notable for its annual Bun Festival, and maybe its pirate cave. Here, legend has it that you will be granted superpowers if you see the god/goddess underwater. In order to prevent her from trying to take her own life again, Gill’s friends and all the eccentric islanders trick her into thinking she can do the impossible. This is supposedly done in an endearing and not at all exploitative sort of way.

With revenge still on her mind, Gill finds herself at the launch of a “water babes” swim competition, which is being endorsed by celebrity swimmer Chi-Yuen (actual celebrity and Olympic swimmer Fong). She spots Mei Mei and agrees to enter, with Chi-Yuen’s help. Rather than being a charming heartthrob though, he turns out to be a right ass, prompting Gill to kidnap him and force him to train her and her friends.

Alex Fong makes an amusing cad, and it’s refreshing to see pop stars attempting roles that don’t align with their public image. He gets the meatiest part as a self-absorbed cityslicker who grows to appreciate the sincerity of others. Gillian Chung, meanwhile, has greater difficulty balancing an innocent girl-next-door character with her actual character. I am only partly alluding to the Edison Chen photo scandal that delayed this movie’s release for two years. More relevant is the fact that Chung was 27 when she filmed Water Babes and should not have been presented as a chirpy ingenue. There are fleeting moments of exaggerated teen rom-com convention that poke fun at the genre and actors but not enough to confuse this movie with satire.

This leaves the real star of the movie, Cheung Chau. The delicious cinematography and art direction paint a quiet village, rich in tradition and populated with generous if quirky folks (including a delusional Stephen Fung character who thinks the loan sharks are after him). The wistful images of hidden Hong Kong reminded me of an early Chung film, Just One Look (一碌蔗), also set in Cheung Chau. That movie is far superior, but both capitalize on the scenic island and its history and play like a love letter to rural Hong Kong. If the writers had just excised the swimming competition, The Fantastic Water Babes would have been, well, fantastic.

Gillian Chung and Alex Fong’s “For Life” (一生一世).

Released: 2010
Prod: Jeff Lau 劉鎮偉
Dir: Jeff Lau 劉鎮偉
Writer: Jeff Lau 劉鎮偉
Cast: Gillian Chung 鍾欣桐; Alex Fong 方力申; Eva Huang 黃聖依; Hyper BB 茜利妹; Chu Fun 朱薰; Simon Lui; Stephen Fung 馮德倫; Tian Liang 田亮; Natalie Tong 唐詩詠; Ma Yue 馬閱; Chrissie Chau 周秀娜; Patrick Dunn 鄧梓峰; Jacqueline Law 羅慧娟; Calvin Sun 孫祖楊; Bianca Liu 廖羽翹
Time: 89 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2013