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Clandestine romance provides sad but pleasurable viewing in the high-quality Hong Kong meller "Claustrophobia."

With: Karena Lam, Ekin Cheng, Felix Lok, Derek Tsang, Chucky Woo, Eric Tsang, Andy Hui (Cantonese, Mandarin, English dialogue)

Clandestine romance provides sad but pleasurable viewing in the high-quality Hong Kong meller “Claustrophobia.” Helming bow of Hong Kong scripting vet Ivy Ho (“Comrades, Almost a Love Story,” “Divergence”) has a mastery that recalls Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen at their most sublime. Offering fine drama about and for adults, pic will make a prestige inclusion for fests. Commercial possibilities exist for industrious distribs willing to guide sophisticated auds away from the usual arthouse milieus. Hong Kong release has not been confirmed, but will likely be skeeded in early 2009, with other Chinese-language territories to quickly follow.

Narrative covers an illicit, yearlong office romance between marketing secretary Pearl (Karena Lam) and married manager Tom (Ekin Cheng). Unfolding like Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” in reverse, the script is constructed from periodic snippets of the couple’s innocent and not-so-innocent conversations. Throughout the film, the lovers are rarely seen alone, and are usually in the company of one or more of their business associates.

Pic begins with Tom driving Pearl home with other colleagues after a late-night drinking session. They’re accompanied by a bickering couple: glitzy, spoiled Jewel (Chucky Woo) and slightly effeminate John (Derek Tsang). In retrospect, Jewel and John’s fiery spat indicates why no one in the office has suspected Pearl and Tom’s affair. But after the others have been dropped off, a tense exchange confirms that the pair have shared more than just car rides.

Yarn’s segments leap from one week earlier to one year earlier, with various intervals in between. Ho uses discretion at all times, letting auds decide for themselves the extent of the affair. In every sequence, seemingly innocuous details allow the attentive viewer to gather subtle clues about the characters’ backgrounds and activities.

Subtle centerpiece is a long sequence that takes place after an apparently unhappy tryst at a Hong Kong beachside hideaway. Pearl’s extended conversation with a cab driver (Andy Hui), like much of pic’s dialogue, is trivial on the surface but brims with passionate allusions only a suppressed heartbeat away.

Throughout the running time, the precisely crafted dialogue is matched by a naturalistic, almost improvised air. Perfs are strong across the board, and distaff lead Lam is aces. An extended cameo by Eric Tsang is enjoyable and also acts as gateway to revelations about Pearl’s relationship history.

Given that a clever, seasoned scribe like Ho can often guide a helmer’s directorial choices, her own direction is understandably smart. Augmented by the smooth camerawork of Taiwanese-born lenser Mark Lee Ping Bing (“The Sun Also Rises,” “Spring Snow” and most of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films), pic is a visual delight that.

Injection of coin from Nipponese company Avex Entertainment may explain why tech credits reach a higher standard than the Hong Kong norm.


Hong Kong

Production: An Irresistible Films, Film Development Fund of Hong Kong presentation a Runaway Films, Mega Profit Creation production. (International sales: Edko Films, Hong Kong.) Produced by Cary Cheng, Yee Chung Man. Executive producers, Bill Kong, Ryuhei Chiba, Hugh Simon. Directed, written by Ivy Ho.

Crew: Camera (color), Mark Lee Ping Bing; editor, Kong Chi Leung; music, Anthony Chue; production designer, Yee Chung Man; sound (Dolby Digital), Chan Man Chiu. Reviewed at Tokyo Film Festival (competing), Oct. 22, 2008. (Also in Berlin Intl. Film Festival — Panorama.) Running time: 100 MIN.

With: With: Karena Lam, Ekin Cheng, Felix Lok, Derek Tsang, Chucky Woo, Eric Tsang, Andy Hui (Cantonese, Mandarin, English dialogue)

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