'29+1': Film Review

29+1 - Still 1 -Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of China 3D Digital Entertainment
A charming, Bechdel-approved adult coming-of-age drama.

Chrissie Chau and Joyce Cheng headline debuting filmmaker Kearan Pang’s contemporary drama about life, expectation and disappointment.

Two women on the cusp of the dreaded "3-0" see their two very different lives and worldviews intersect in Kearan Pang’s adaptation of her own one-woman 2005 stage play, 29+1. Pang, a theatrical performer (she had a role in Pang Ho-cheung’s Vulgaria) and writer (again, penning Pang’s Isabella), brings a much-needed female voice to the Hong Kong industry — Ann Hui, Heiward Mak and Mable Cheung being the only others regularly working who spring to mind — and though she has yet to get a handle on film as a form, her debut feature shows promise and is a welcome departure from the martial actioners, retro gangster epics and crass comedies Hong Kong has largely been pumping out lately.

Given its Lean In-lite content and a pair of popular, likeable leads, 29+1 should do respectable business at home — particularly in light of the play’s success — and could score on the art house circuit in Asia. Farther afield, the film will find its warmest welcome on the female-friendly festival circuit, and its modest production could help it find an audience on more intimate streaming and download services.

29+1 starts with a peppy, perky, snarky fourth-wall-breaking morning routine that sees rising PR professional Christy Lam (Chrissie Chau) getting ready for work. Her cosmetic regimen and the rest of the decisions that go into getting prepared are interrupted with pithy comments, and though most have been said before, Chau makes the whole scene charmingly jaded. The rest of her day is uneventful — she deals with unhelpful landlord Mr. Leung (Jan Lamb), a distant boyfriend (Benjamin Yeung) and unsolicited life advice from her cabbie (Eric Kot) — until a sudden promotion at work. Also, her 30th birthday is around the corner. Things start to pile on with an Alzheimer’s-stricken dad, stress at work in the form of a tetchy spokesmodel and a sudden eviction. It’s the eviction and sublet Mr. Leung finds that brings her into spiritual contact with Wong Tin-lok (Joyce Cheng), also 29 and born on the same day, who’s out of town on a dream trip to Paris. Christy reads Tin-lok’s journal, which chronicles her childlike defiance and resistance to living up to work and wedding expectations. Naturally, Christy finds new direction in life.

However strong the source material may be, Pang’s decision to cleave so closely to it stylistically is a hit-and-miss proposition. Technically, the film is polished, the second half flirting with almost expressionistic images (courtesy of cinematographer Jason Kwan). Breaking the fourth wall and Christy’s intermittent flights of reverie (usually fantasies about how she’d like to react to idiocy rather than how she should) may have worked on stage, but come off as gimmicky in the film; one gives way to the other halfway through, ultimately rendering both random storytelling elements. The pic ends with a sermon on self-determination, and the dialogue tends toward the on-the-nose instead of the kind that allows viewers to draw their own inferences. A refreshing scene with Christy and her boss, played by the inimitable Elaine Jin, discussing choice and regret is a prime example. Admittedly it’s a highlight, regardless.

And that’s Pang’s trump card: her stellar cast. Cheng is the daughter of popular Hong Kong personality Lydia Shum — otherwise known as Fei Fei, or “Fatty” — and was on track to pop stardom. No surprise, management demanded she drop a ton of weight, which she did, eventually giving up, gaining it back, and damning the torpedoes in doing so. In 2016, she had a hit with empowerment anthem “Goddess.” Her layered performance as the optimistic Tin-lok takes a genuinely moving turn late in the film (even if the narrative cops out), especially in the scenes she shares with her best friend, Hon-ming (Babyjohn Choi, another surprise). Chau, on the other hand, is best known as a low-level model and comparable supporting actress (her most high-profile role may be as “Demon Number 4” in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons). Frequently referred to as a pseudo-model, she hasn’t let that bother her, and it’s given her an image among peers as a young woman dauntlessly forging a career despite critics. Pang (who played both characters onstage) has finally given Chau the opportunity to actually act like a complex person, and she turns in what could be a game-changer for her career. Like Cheng, she shines brightest in the quiet, reflective moments, and both make these women recognizable and, above all, relatable.   

Production company: Asian Rich Ltd
Cast: Chrissie Chau, Joyce Cheng, Babyjohn Choi, Benjamin Yeung, Elaine Jin, Eric Kot, Jan Lamb
Director-screenwriter: Kearan Pang
Producer: Allen Chan
Executive producer: Stephen Shiu, Xu Ziquan, Joy Hung
Director of photography: Jason Kwan
Production designer: Chan Chet
designer: Cecilia Chick
Editor: Lee Him-ming
Music: Wong Ngai-lun, Janet Yung
Casting: Lau Wing Lui, Wong Hon-ching
World sales: China 3D Digital Distribution Limited

In Cantonese