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Love in a Puff

A lighter-than-air yarn about two cheerful nicotine enthusiasts.

With: Miriam Yeung, Shawn Yue, Cheung Tat-ming, Maio Felin, Chui Tien-you.

A lighter-than-air yarn about two cheerful nicotine enthusiasts, Hong Kong romancer “Love in a Puff” is an unfiltered delight. Pang Ho-cheung gets the balance exactly right with this well-realized vehicle for Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue, which also plays like a poem to that most cinematic of vices, smoking. Garnering a harsh censorship rating due to profanity and excessive tobacco use, pic had a sluggish local opening in March but has since grossed a semi-respectable $1 million. Further afield, Pang’s growing fest following should take this effort beyond the usual Asia-buff route.

Pic opens with an enjoyable shaggy-dog story that turns out to be a dramatization of around-the-ashtray banter on a street corner. Amid the puffing throng, advertising exec Jimmy (Yue) nonchalantly lights a cigarette for makeup salesgirl Cherie (Yeung). Brief flirtation drifts into definite attraction, but when Jimmy joins a bored Cherie and her friends at a raunchy-themed karaoke night for what he thinks will be a first date, he finds Cherie already has a bf.

Cherie considers leaving her boorish current squeeze, and pic deftly maintains momentum, its pendulum swinging between comedy and drama, as the wannabe lovers try to decide whether or not to begin a relationship. A semi-comic climax, pivoting on the government’s decision to raise cigarette prices, prompts a clever and funny twist on the romantic-comedy trope of the frenzied last-minute dash.

Gentle, genuine perfs have an authentic ring. Yeung effortlessly moves from coy to in-command and back again, while Yue hits the right note as a guy who’s never quite sure when it’s his turn on the love-go-round. The leads’ tangible rapport is evident in the dramatic scenes, but best demonstrated in a hilarious sequence in which the pair pose as innocent tourists when a cop busts them for smoking in a no-puff zone. Seamless supporting perfs buttress the central romance to create a street-smart view of Hong Kong singles.

Pang’s helming achieves an easy intimacy as he uses Jason Kwan’s wobbly lensing to create an eavesdropping effect. Interview sequences with various characters, lensed in 16mm with deliberately visible boom mikes, are superfluous but charming enough appendages. Despite such low-budget affectations, tech credits are pro.

Love in a Puff

Hong Kong

Production: A Media Asia Distribution release of a Media Asia Films presentation of a Making Film production. (International sales: Media Asia Distribution, Hong Kong.) Produced by Pang Ho-cheung, Subi Liang. Executive producer, John Chong. Directed by Pang Ho-cheung. Screenplay, Pang, Heiward Mak, from a story by Pang.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen, HD/16mm-to-35mm), Jason Kwan; editor, Wenders Li; music, Alan Wong, Janet Yung; production designer, Man Lim-chung; art director, Leung Sze-wan; sound, Tu De-che. Reviewed at Sydney Film Festival, June 11, 2010. (Also in Hong Kong, Seattle film festivals.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With: With: Miriam Yeung, Shawn Yue, Cheung Tat-ming, Maio Felin, Chui Tien-you.

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