Review: ‘Contract Lover’

"Contract Lover" is a pleasant, star-led romantic comedy with an old-fashioned feel.

More interesting for what it says about the relationship between the Hong Kong and Mainland industries than as a movie in its own right, “Contract Lover” is a pleasant, star-led romantic comedy with an old-fashioned feel. Well-worn tale of a woman who poses as a guy’s fiancee to help him solve a personal problem will be of most interest to Asiaphile auds familiar with the movie references and actors involved (notably fast-rising Mainland actress Fan Bingbing). Pic went out in China and Hong Kong in August, with only moderate biz in the latter, where it screened in a Cantonese-dubbed version.

Pic reps a belated return to comedy by Cantonese actor-director Alfred Cheung, a key figure of ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong cinema. In the early ’90s, Cheung helmed a successful series of comedies (“Her Fatal Ways”) that traded on pre-Mainland handover jitters and the yawning cultural gap between China and Hong Kong. Now, Cheung has ironically returned to directing, after a six-year absence, with a Mainland-shot comedy made in Mandarin.

Though the trend has been going for several years, the film brings into sharp focus the growing difficulty of keeping the Mainland and Hong Kong industries in separate cultural boxes. Humor in “Lover” strongly recalls Hong Kong models of the ’80s, but is here transplanted to contempo China and played successfully in Mandarin rather than Cantonese.

Cast mixes Taiwan-born singer-actor Richie Jen with Hong Kong and Mainland thesps, and also returns two Hong Kong industry vets (producer Ng See-yuen and martial-arts player Yuen Wah) to the country in which they were actually born. As a further sign of the times, pic also features a Mandarin-fluent Westerner (U.S. wushu champ Ian Powers) in a substantial comic role — well, OK, as a gay martial artist — rather than as a villain or in a curio cameo.

Liu Zao (Fan) is an unemployed graduate temping in a Beijing language school; Huo Qifa (Jen) is an investment company exec with a very Westernized girlfriend, Rachel (Kate Tsui, “Eye in the Sky”), who teaches pole dancing. When Huo is pressured by his parents to visit them down south, and bring along his g.f., he advertises for someone to take her place on a strict two-week contract. Liu gets the job, and takes along her gay landlord, Alex (Powers), as protection.

Huo’s plan is for Liu to act so trashy that when Rachel arrives, his conservative parents will be relieved — and accept her. Catch is that the father (Yuen), who runs a martial-arts school, takes a liking to Liu, as does the mother (Yang Zhiying), whom Liu encourages to be sexually liberated.

Meanwhile, romance blooms between Huo and Liu, and within the complicated triangle of Alex, Huo’s sister (Liu Yi) and her triad b.f. (You Hang). And then Rachel arrives.

In her first comic lead role, Fan is very good, catching the easygoing style of Cheung’s dialogue and character-driven humor without overdoing the ditz. Jen, never a strong screen presence, basically watches the rest of the cast get on with it, notably Yuen in classic form as the pompous father who claims direct descent from martial artist Huo Yuanqi (pic is littered with jokes centered on Jet Li starrer “Fearless”).

Technical package is typically unelaborate but OK.

Contract Lover

China

Production

A Seasonal (Shanghai) Film Corp. production. Produced by Vivian Ng. Executive producers, Ng See-yuen. Directed by Alfred Cheung. Screenplay, Cheung, Keith Wong, Jiang Dan.

Crew

Camera (color), Kwong Ting-woo; editor, Poon Hung; music, Tommy Wai; art director, Chung Yee-fung; costume designer, Suki Yip; sound (Dolby Digital), Huang Yuanming; action director, Hon Chun; assistant director, Kwok Man-ki. Reviewed on DVD, London, Nov. 4, 2007. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Richie Jen, Fan Bingbing, Yuen Wah, Kate Tsui, Liu Yi, Ian Powers, Liu Yiwei, Yang Zhiying, You Hang, Yu Molin, Liang Tiejian, Zhang Jinrong, A Min. (Mandarin dialogue)
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