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Dry Wood Fierce Fire

Teaming of loopy comedienne Miriam Yeung and perma-tan hunk Louis Koo, plus a relaxed, improvisational feel, makes "Dry Wood Fierce Fire" an unexpected delight among this year's Hong Kong romantic comedies. Film signals a successful return to non-action material by director Wilson Yip ("Juliet in Love").

With:
With: Louis Koo, Miriam Yeung, Flora Chen, Wyman Wong, Tuba Law, Yuen King-dan, Cheung Tat-ming, Chapman To, Matt Chow, Nelson Cheung, Joe Lee, Wong Yat-fei. (Cantonese dialogue.)

Teaming of loopy comedienne Miriam Yeung and perma-tan hunk Louis Koo, plus a relaxed, improvisational feel, makes “Dry Wood Fierce Fire” an unexpected delight among this year’s Hong Kong romantic comedies. Film signals a successful return to non-action material by director Wilson Yip (“Juliet in Love”), whose currency with fest selectors may even get this one onto the fringes of the circuit. It’s as light as a feather but an audience charmer.

Following on the heels of “Love Undercover” — a delightful follow-up by helmer Joe Ma to Yeung’s 2001 hit, “Dummy Mommy, Without a Baby” — “Dry Wood” kindled the local B.O. to a warm HK$13 million ($1.7 million) in April, confirming singer-actress Yeung’s solid appeal. She still has a way to go, however, to equal popular singer-actress Sammi Cheng, with whom she shares some performance traits: Cheng’s fluffy New Year romantic comedy, “Marry a Rich Man,” directed by Vincent Kuk, chewed off a beefy $2.7 million.

However, Yeung is still the freshest comic talent to hit Hong Kong’s screens in some time, giving the constant impression she’s wandered on the set by accident and is making up her dialogue as she goes along. Only borderline-pretty by conventional H.K. standards, with a permanent bad hair day and usually dressed in baggy clothes, she appears to teeter on the edge of fluffing every take while clearly knowing exactly what she’s doing. Unlike some other ditz queens, she’s also good at switching from out-there to touching within seconds.

In “Dry Wood,” Yeung essays Alice Tsui, daughter of a traditional Chinese herbalist (Tuba Law) and his ugly wife (Yuen King-dan). Shortsighted, spacey but determined, Alice is also an expert in Chinese medicine and a skilled martial artist. When the women’s magazine for which she writes a health column is absorbed into a men’s monthly, edited by Ryan Li (Koo), she finds herself gradually falling for the pill-popping, narcoleptic playboy. Ryan, however, only has eyes for group head Michelle (Flora Chan), so Alice coaches the boneheaded lothario in how to charm her rival. This, of course, means they spend even more time together.

From their first dedicated scene, as Ryan struggles with an ATM, Yeung and Koo show a chemistry that makes their twosomes in the movie look like rehearsal outtakes rather than the real thing. The film really takes off an hour in with an extended sequence in which Alice first shows Ryan how to put a necklace on a woman, and then has to avoid being seen when Michelle unexpectedly arrives at his apartment. Yeung’s snappy Bruce Lee tribute, after she’s been smuggled out into the corridor, is one of the thesp’s highlights.

Hong Kong’s answer to George Hamilton, Koo is remarkably relaxed here, sending up his own image as in last fall’s hit, “La Brassiere.” One of the surprises of “Dry Wood” is that the plot doesn’t turn into a re-run of that movie — with office gender wars — and goes instead for a basically simple romance in which Alice’s “internal prettiness” is pitted against Michelle’s more obvious glamour.

But it’s the performances that make the movie, with fine ensemble work down the line. Asian buffs will note a witty cameo midway by Cheung Tat-ming as a kung-fu hobo. Technical credits are smooth.

Dry Wood Fierce Fire

Hong Kong

Production: A Mandarin Films release of a Mandarin Film presentation of a Virus Action/Fresh Air Team production. (International sales: Mandarin, H.K.) Produced by Raymond Wong, Peter Chan Chi-keung. Executive producer, Carl Chang. Directed by Wilson Yip. Screenplay, Yip, Kwok Tsz-kin, He Gu, Eileen Yeung.

Crew: Camera (Fujicolor), Poon Hang-sang; editor, Cheung Ka-fai; music, Dennie Wong, Schumann Lee; art director, Kenneth Mak; costume consultant, Bruce Yu. Reviewed on videodisc, London, July 13, 2002. Running time: 91 MIN.

With: With: Louis Koo, Miriam Yeung, Flora Chen, Wyman Wong, Tuba Law, Yuen King-dan, Cheung Tat-ming, Chapman To, Matt Chow, Nelson Cheung, Joe Lee, Wong Yat-fei. (Cantonese dialogue.)

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