Stephen Fung Tak-Lun

All About Women (女人不壞)

all about women

All About Women is one wacky, overlong explosion of feminist, romance, fantasy weirdness that you’re either going to appreciate for its eccentricity or hate for its incoherence or, in some cases, both. The brainchild of Tsui Hark and cowriter Kwak Jae-Yong (My Sassy Girl), this two-hour film about three women and the pursuit of love is badly in need of an editor no matter how you approach it. But it also tries to hack out a new course for traditional romcoms, and such vision gets some credit given the recycled junkyard that is Hong Kong cinema these days.

In order to begin to appreciate what Tsui is doing though, you need to plow through the first hour, and this is where the film will lose most of its audience. The three main characters are introduced in a disjointed opening, beginning with scientist Fanfan (Zhou Xun), who suffers from selective sclerosis. This makes her freeze in awkward positions at awkward moments, but it’s the least of her problems. Conforming to stereotypes of socially inept scientists, Fanfan needs serious help when it comes to guys and is working on pheromone stickers that will take the clumsiness out of love. Tanglu (Kitty Zhang), meanwhile, is her opposite. Also embracing a familiar archetype, this sexy, power dressing she-devil renders men useless whenever she marches down the corridor. She closes deals but worries that her beauty is bad for business and that she is not being taken seriously. Last up is Tieling (Guey Lun-Mei), the scrappy, emo rock-chick-poet-boxer of the group. She also has a long-term imaginary relationship with model X (Godfrey Gao) because a) it makes sense later on, and b) who wouldn’t?

It’s a madhouse as these eccentric personalities scramble around their professional and love lives. Increasingly, their paths intersect. Fanfan sets her eyes on a moody rocker (Stephen Fung) whose backside resembles the last subject of her infatuation. He happens to work with Tieling, while she has caught the attention of Tanglu’s meek assistant, Qiyan (Eddie Peng). It isn’t until some of these characters literally crash into each other that the story seems to gain momentum. A mix-up involving Fanfan’s pheromone stickers results in some Midsummer’s Night-like consequences that have the three women questioning what they want out of a partner and of love.

The characters that Tsui and Kwak craft don’t exactly pass the Bechdel test, but they end up being more than the sum of their quirks. This is due in part to the strength of the writing and directing, which eventually move beyond sheer absurdities. The film’s latter half is a lot more challenging than the usual “will they or won’t they” scenario precisely because the love matches have been manipulated by Fanfan’s patches. Each character in her own way is trying to distill love into one formula, whether it be in chemical form or as a romanticized ideal. However, they find that the heart can’t be simplified.

There’s a fair amount of offbeat humor in this, and the actresses get a lot of credit for adding a sympathetic dimension to their parts that is not found in the script. Despite her character’s robotic nature, Zhou is surprisingly funny and at ease with her eccentric role. I was also impressed by Zhang’s ability to turn Tanglu into more than a shrill maneater, and Guey similarly made Tieling’s romantic fantasy seem endearing rather than obsessive.

Considering the movie is called All About Women, it might be expected that the love stories suffer. The male characters get a bit of space to pine or sulk – or in the cases of Gao and Alex Fong Chung-Sun, look flawless and unattainable, but the overall chemistry between the sexes is hit and miss. Much like the rest of the film. Demanding audiences may be more appreciative of the effort and more willing to dig to find the characters, but it retains the feel of an experimental piece, albeit a fresh and fun one, that needs more workshopping.

Released: 2008
Prod: Tsui Hark 徐克; Huang Jianxin 黃建新; Nansun Shi 施南生; Elvis Lee 李程
Dir: Tsui Hark 徐克
Writer: Tsui Hark 徐克; Kwak Jae-Yong 곽재용
Cast: Zhou Xun 周迅; Kitty Zhang 張雨綺; Guey Lun-Mei 桂綸鎂; Alex Fong Chung-Sun 方中信; Stephen Fung 馮德倫; Godfrey Gao 高以翔; Shen Chang 沈暢; Eddie Peng 彭于晏
Time: 120 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong/Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

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