Claustrophobia -- Film Review

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Panorama Special
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BERLIN -- No guns are fired, nor do any car chases occur, in this delicate -- if slightly thin -- story of unrequited love centered in the marketing department of a large Hong Kong corporation. Told backward in eight successive flashbacks, virtually all of the film's dialogue is (purposely, one hopes) utterly vapid. Yet just enough of it -- maybe a tenth -- seems to hint at more unruly emotions that must remain repressed by the sweet and gentle woman at the film's core.

Since it contains little of what consumers of "Hong Kong films" have come to expect from the genre, and given its offbeat narrative structure, it's hard to imagine very robust sales for the film. But it might interest festival programrs looking to display something of contemporary Hong Kong life beyond its gangsters.

The shy and thoughtful Pearl (Karena Lam) has a crush on her boss Tom (Ekin Cheng), but by the end of the first scene he has upset her by recommending that she look for another job. The virtually self-contained scenes that follow are labeled "one week ago," "one month ago," "two months ago," and so on, as the genesis of this love affair that is not to be is explored. We also meet Pearl's other co-workers, such as the gorgeous airhead Jewel (Chuck Woo), the disapproving senior employee Karl (Felix Lok), and the smart but hyper-sensitive John (Derek Tsang), whom the cellphone-obsessed Jewel has wrapped around her little finger.

It must be said that writer-director Ivy Ho's use of the reverse narrative structure has none of the philosophical depth found in films like "Memento" or her film's closer cousin, another love story, "Betrayal." In fact, it's difficult to determine why she used it at all as it seems to create expectations of significance that are never satisfied.

Virtually all subjects that come up in the course of the film are of the utmost banality, yet an evanescent delicateness surfaces when the script allows hints of true feeling to emerge. (One such moment comes during a discussion of foot massages, when Tom says, apparently offhandedly, that "only the kind of foot massage that hurts does you any good.")

Ho also knows how to contrast noisy, stupid moments (mostly involving Jewel) with the pregnant, mysterious silences of Pearl when she is alone with the unsuspecting Tom. (In the film's best scene, she confesses her love to him while he's asleep.)

There also is a potentially powerful but largely undeveloped theme that subtly contrasts the high-powered world of contemporary Hong Kong with the quiet if almost forgotten pleasures of a traditional Chinese song heard accidentally on the radio, or the moon glimpsed briefly between two towering skyscrapers that otherwise obliterate the evening sky.

Production: Runaway Films, Mega Profit Creation
Cast: Karena Lam, Ekin Cheng, Felix Lok, Derek Tsang, Chucky Woo, Eric Tsang
Director-screenwriter: Ivy Ho
Producers: Cary Cheng, Yee Chung Man
Executive producer: Bill Kong, Ryuhei Chiba, Hugh Simon
Director of photography: Mark Lee Ping Bing
Production designer: Yee Chung Man
Music: Anthony Chue
Editor: Kong Chi Leung
Sales: Edko Films (Hong Kong)

No rating, 100 minutes