The jokes are less smutty and the couple more jaded in “Love in the Buff,” a refreshingly authentic romantic comedy about the tradeoffs people must make in their relationships, careers and lifestyles. Compromises are also required of helmer Pang Ho-cheung as he shifts from his native Hong Kong to Beijing for this “Love in a Puff” sequel, and while censorship concerns have required him to tone down the risque elements, his saucy repartee and eye for absurdity gain resonance in a setting that’s familiar yet foreign. Decent local B.O. awaits, but the pic’s cultural specificity will hinder its prospects beyond.
In “Puff,” chain-smokers Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and Cherie (Miriam Yeung) met cute while trying to sabotage the government’s landmark law banning outdoor smoking. The sequel begins nine months later in Hong Kong in 2009: After they’ve made out and moved in together, adman Jimmy becomes more focused on getting ahead than on pleasing his g.f. Low-maintenance Cherie puts up with it for a while but eventually calls it quits, and Pang perceptively captures how the novelty and euphoria of a relationship wear off in a few telling scenes.
The two eventually find themselves in Beijing. Poached by his ex-boss to start a new venture, Jimmy picks up dishy mainland flight attendant Shang Youyou (Mini Yang) in no time. Cherie, sent to the city to oversee a new cosmetics store, half-heartedly checks out the local singles scene and meets divorced entrepreneur Sam (Xu Zheng), who wins her over with a gross but gallant gesture. But when Jimmy and Cherie run into each other, they automatically drift into an affair, lapsing into old patterns.
The way in which this quadrangle plays out is fairly predictable yet generates considerable emotional engagement with its numerous twists and impulsive changes of heart. But it’s the narrative non sequiturs and comic vignettes sprinkled throughout that give the freewheeling pic its playful charm. The nonsensical tone of the shaggy-dog story that opens “Puff” is extended here, dovetailing with the theme of hard luck in the search for lasting love and happiness. Making cameo appearances, mainland heartthrob Huang Xiaoming, Hong Kong star Ekin Cheng and retired Taiwanese singer-actress Linda Wang (daughter of Jimmy) cannily play on their screen personas while evoking nostalgia for their respective heydays.
“Buff” being a Hong Kong-China co-production and therefore subject to censorship, the political incorrectness that made the original so fun has been judiciously snuffed out. Occasional scenes of smoking are made conspicuous by their absence elsewhere, and the titillating title also misleads, as the protags are only ever seen buttoning up their clothes rather than taking them off.
Where Pang offers fresh insight is in his take on the rapidly changing social and sexual dynamics in Hong Kong and China. Rather than deriving comedy from hackneyed fish-out-of-water situations, he plays down the culture clash and shows Hong Kong execs speaking Mandarin fluently (albeit with Cantonese accents) and feeling totally at home in Beijing’s trendy neighborhoods and upscale offices. But despite the materialistic upgrade, the characters’ homesickness is revealed in subtle details, such as the microwave spaghetti from a Hong Kong 7-Eleven that Cherie brings Jimmy as the ultimate love token.
In this context, the fact that Cherie and Jimmy keep returning to each other, despite having hotter and more obliging partners, hints at the complexities of expat life. Likewise, “two-timing” can be read symbolically as the helmer’s own filmmaking strategy, conceding to and taking advantage of China’s market conditions while trying to retain and repackage his personal style and core Hong Kong values.
The leads’ effortless chemistry holds the film together through its desultory structure and dramatic mood swings; Yue’s gentle, boyish demeanor makes it easy to see why Cherie continually overlooks his selfish reluctance to grow up. As Cherie’s friend Brenda, who was cruelly stood up in “Puff” but gets her revenge here, June steals every scene she’s in, standing out among the numerous quirky supporting turns from Hong Kong thesps. By contrast, mainland actors Yang and Xu ring false as impossible goody-goodies, though Pang might have intended them to look out of place to further underline disparities of culture and personality.
The overall tech package is glossier but less distinctive than that of the first film. Jason Lee’s HD lensing is versatile, but lacks a strong visual style, while Wenders Li’s brisk, clean editing maintains a peppy, light-hearted rhythm. The score by Alan Wong and Janet Yung uses tacky Cantopop to add cheeky layers of meaning, culminating in a musicvideo end-credits sequence that puts a sidesplitting twist on the film’s sentimental climax.