Dir/scr: Ivy Ho. Hong Kong. 2008. 100mins.
In her first film as director, Hong Kong scripter Ivy Ho gives a masterclass in the tricky art of making a love story whose emotional point is always at one poignant remove from its protagonists’ words and actions. Unspooling backwards in time over one year from last meeting to first stirrings, this underplayed tale of the yearning of a minor manager in a small trading firm for her married boss treats an unremarkable not-quite-love-affair between two unremarkable people with a lyricism and keenness of observation that lifts it beyond its uneventful storyline.
Commercially, though, Claustrophobia risks falling between two stools. It has some of the auteur appeal of In The Mood For Love, but without that film’s lush period atmosphere (and the Wong imprimitur) it may struggle to reach arthouse audiences abroad. In fact its contemporary settings and a couple of minor comedy-oriented characters even hark occasionally towards commercial HK melodramas- but Ho’s debut is way too artsy for home fans. In the end, its best prospects probably lie in being marketed internationally as Hong Kong’s answer to the bittersweet tragicomedies of Eric Rohmer - a director with whom Ho has a great deal in common.
The claustrophobia of the title is that of high-density Hong Kong, where private lives are often forced to unfold in public. In a cramped out-of-town office, gentle, slightly dreamy marketing assistant Pearl (Lam) works with her colleagues - party-girl Jewel (Woo), who is always on her mobile phone, older senior manager Karl (Lok), immature clerk John (Derek Tsang) and the dashing but reserved Tom (Cheng), the office manager.
The film begins with the five colleagues crammed into Tom’s car as he drives them home after a day’s work. Gradually we realise that the real drama is the unspoken romantic tension between the two most taciturn characters, Pearl and Tom. But when they are finally alone in the car, it takes an unexpected turn, with Tom telling Pearl that he has a friend who can help her get a much better managerial position - effectively firing her, with kid gloves. After she has vented her anger, they almost kiss - but then a mobile phone rings.
The story tracks backward in eight stages from this achingly believable ending to the quiet start of Pearl’s crush a year before. Some scenes - like one in which Pearl visits her family doctor (Eric Tsang) with a sore throat, have nothing to do with the love plot, at least on the surface, but are full of undercurrents. In a key scene, set on a harbour island where Pearl has gone in the pouring rain because she knows Tom plays golf there, it’s her distracted, awkward exchange with a kind taxi driver (Hui) that mediates her longing, rather than any direct contact with the object of desire.
Karena Lam’s sensitive performance lights up the film, while the moody, sodium-lit night photography of longtime Hou Hsiao-Hsien collaborator Mark Lee Ping-bing highlights the romantic tension.
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