Love in a Puff (2010)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2013-11-10
Summary: Love in a text
“Love in a Puff” could be called “Love in the Time of SMS Messages” since both short text messages and carcinogen packed paper tubes are essential to the plot and serve as signs of the developing relationship between Jimmy Cheung and Cherie Yu.

The first shots could be introducing an urban horror movie—“Freddie and Jason’s Bloody Wedding” perhaps, complete with blood red credits that seem to be dripping down the screen. A security guard makes his rounds in an underground car park, tracked by the camera that, if true to form, stands in for the monster/slasher/murderer. Lights flash, thunder rolls and an eerie disembodied voice, is heard...cut to a group of young Hong Kong office workers standing around in an alley on a smoke break. One of them is telling the scary story that was being played out under the credits a few seconds before. And so the scene is set.

The group is an eclectic mix of Hong Kong types: Jimmy is a successful advertising account executive; his buddy, Eunuch Lee, works at the same agency; Cherie sells make-up and perfume at a Sephora store as does KK, her best friend. Rounding out the bunch is a vulgar and always horny bellhop and a South Asian fast food delivery guy who says his name translates into Cantonese as “damned Paki”.

Their conversation was filled with bawdy banter, ribald remarks and coarse commentary which were probably funny in Cantonese. It is difficult to translate puns and jokes based on innuendo from one Western language to another—indeed the puns in Shakespeare are often footnoted and explained for the modern reader, losing the humor that is based on double meanings. Going from a language in which tones change the meaning of words to one that uses tone for emphasis or emotional expression creates an unbridgeable gap for the non-Cantonese speaker. Throw in the challenge of changing spoken dialog to text in subtitles and the best that can happen is that audience will think, “That must be a joke”.

Language differences can be funny when they don’t depend on the variety of meanings of words, though. An instance is a confrontation that Jimmy and Cherie have with a Hong Kong policeman charged with enforcing the new anti-smoking laws. The cop tells them in Cantonese that they are breaking the law by smoking and prepares to issue them a summons. Jimmy manages to get across to him that he is Japanese and doesn’t speak Cantonese (or Mandarin or any other Chinese dialect) so the officer tries to mime that smoking is forbidden in the area. Jimmy acts as if the policeman using a dumb show to ask for a cigarette, the last thing the officer wants. He then turns to Cherie translate but it turns out that she is Korean and is just as unable to understand the smoking rules. The scene is well done and funny because it depends on physical comedy, exaggerated facial expressions and fun of thwarting authority. There may be several other layers of meaning in the scene. For example is the Japanese tourist stupid because he doesn’t understand the rules or is he arrogant because he is ignoring them? How is it that a Japanese/Korean couple, neither who speak a word of Chinese, wind up in Hong Kong? What are they doing in this non-touristy part of town—office buildings closed for the night—and will they be stranded there? There must be many more that don’t occur to me.

Text or SMS messaging is communication that does cross cultures and languages and is perfect for subtitles since texts must be short statements or questions with no room for ambiguity. Despite (or because of) their simplicity, SMS messages cause problems for the characters in the “Love in a Puff”. Carl thumbs through Cherie’s messages and finds some from Jimmy that show she was meeting with him and not a colleague from work, giving them a reason to end a relationship that had run its course already; Cherie misses an important three word message from Jimmy that shows how much he cares for her; a phone might not be charged or might be dumped in a toilet at a crucial time. Communication is always hard despite using a device, form and syntax specifically designed to make it simple and easy.

So we have intriguing themes hung on an off-the-shelf romantic comedy plot that serves to get the characters in and out of love. The acting is minimalist and effective. Shawn Yu’s Jimmy placidly accepts what life gives him which is quite a lot, while Miriam Yeung effortlessly conveys that Cherie’s occasional emotional outbursts don’t really mean much—her very effecoent break up with Carl after living with him for five years is one example. A couple of scenes are worth mentioning. One is when the new couple goes to a love hotel very early on in their relationship. After some funny by-play—they sit in Jimmy’s car waiting for the signal from the proprietor that their room has been vacated by the previous couple—things get chancy when Cherie has an asthma attack (it had been established that she suffers from asthma even while smoking) before they even begin to undress. Jimmy finds the inhaler she has in her purse and she get through the attack. They finish the evening cuddling fully clothed on the bed with Jimmy saying that everything is fine, they don’t have to do it all in one night, making Cherie very happy although there is a twist to this tale that is revealed later on.

Another scene is the end of the movie. The government of the SAR has toughened the anti-smoking laws even more by levying a steep additional tax on cigarettes. On the evening before it goes into effect at midnight they are driving around various parts of Hong Kong buying as many cartons that they can find. While driving to a distant part of the area the car breaks down on an otherwise unused expressway overpass that has (as it must) one of those breathtaking views of Hong Kong at night. This gives Jimmy and Cherie the time to bicker, fight, come to a realization and decide that they are truly in love, sealing it with a mutual pledge to stop smoking by calling their friends and trying to unload the hundreds of cartons of cigarettes they have just purchased.

Even though “Love in a Puff” is full of local color and local references that will escape the non-Cantonese speaker and even more that won’t register unless one knows Hong Kong well it is still well worth seeing, particularly for fans (of which I am one) of Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung.
Reviewer Score: 6