The Fantastic Water Babes -- Film Review

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BUCHEON, South Korea -- Jeff Lau's "The Fantastic Water Babes" is a kooky medley of the motivational sports movie, supernatural fantasy, romantic comedy and absurdist vernacular gags. The script, about a delusional Hong Kong girl from a sleepy outlying island who tries to one-up her love rival in a swimming contest with the help of a celebrity athlete from China, is skimpier than the bathing suits paraded on screen. Nevertheless, the film's daffy humor is infectious. The three fetching leads Gillian Chung, Alex Fong and Eva Huang charm by playing along with a happy-go-lucky attitude.

Amidst the tremors of "Aftershock's" history-making ticket record in China and the deluge of Hollywood summer blockbusters in Hong Kong, "Water Babes'" earnings of about $1.2 million in China and $136,000 in Hong Kong may seem like a spit in the ocean. The defiantly regional setting and Cantonese colloquial humor are its commercial drawbacks, but ancillary sales could trickle in if they target audiences raised on '90s Hong Kong "Mo Lei Tou" (nonsensical) comedies, which Lau helped pioneer.

At her high school graduation, Gillian (Chung) suffers the double humiliation of being dumped by her boyfriend and slapped by his new gal May. She jumps into the sea to commit suicide but while under water, she thinks she has seen Guan Yin, the patron saint of her native Cheung Chow Island. From then on, she is convinced that the deity has bestowed paranormal powers on her.

When Gillian spots a chance to get back at May by competing against her at a 4x100 swimming relay, she kidnaps Kwok Chi-yuan (Fong, former HK Olympic swimming representative), a swimming champion nicknamed "Prince of Flying Fish" visiting from Guangzhou, to coach her.

How the egotistical, self-interested Kwok becomes gradually disarmed by Gillian's eccentric friends and the Islanders' rustic ways is predictable, but not without whimsical fun. Even though it's obvious Gillian and Kwok will turn from bickering odd couple to lovers, the moment it happens is encapsulated with a swooning, romantic touch by the close-up of Kwok's flip-flop falling off as he clasps Gillian's waist as they ride a bike through a dark, wet alley.

Although Fong's role is a variation on the two-faced lothario he played in many of Patrick Kong's romantic satires, he brings enough sincerity to make his eventual transformation seem convincing. Chung is utterly lovable as ditzy Gillian, because her self-declared vengefulness is never gets serious.

Like all of Lau's films, "Water Babes" treads the line between lunacy and epiphany. It starts off like a Japanese motivational sports film, but it does not follow its formula of the underdog winning through dogged effort. The old adage "believe in oneself" is on every characters' lips, but everyone thrives on self-delusion. Gillian's best friend Jade (Huang) is a hypochondriac who believes she's terminally ill while other pal Hanna (Stephen Fung) is paranoid about being hounded by debtors.

Gillian's encounter with Guan Yin (Tien Liang, former China Olympic diving champion) is playfully ambiguous -- he can be interpreted as a god, a metaphysical representation of Gillian's subconscious or an escaped mental patient. Gillian's so-called paranormal powers are really the power of imagination.

That fantasy can reshape reality the way a psychic bends a spoon is symbolized by Gillian's double vision which empowers her at the climactic contest. The CGI effects used for this sequence channels typical Hong Kong images like a hibiscus statue and litter in the sea and transforms them into something both visually gorgeous and marvelously kitschy.

The hyper-colloquial dialogue used makes Cheung Chau comes across vividly as a community with its own customs and outlook that sets it apart from materialistic and phony urban life on Hong Kong Island. This is reinforced by some very pleasing panoramic shots of its mountains and beaches. But the inhabitants are drawn like cartoon figures. The way they prop up Gillian's belief in her superpowers or conspire to keep Kwok captive is endearingly balmy.

Venue: Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival
Production companies: Emperor Classic Films Company Limited
Cast: Gillian Chung, Alex Fong, Eva Huang, Stephen Fung
Director-screenwriter: Jeff Lau
Producers: Albert Lee, Jiang Tao
Executive producers: Albert Yeung, Han Sanping, Chin Yiu-tong
Director of photography: Peter Ngor
Production designer: Bruce Yu
Music: Raymond Wong
Costume designer: Steven Tsang
Editor: Angie Lam
Sales: Emperor Motion Pictures
No rating, 90 minutes
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