Who's side are you on? Jimmy and Cherie living together. Photo: Hong Kong International Film Festival
Who's side are you on? Jimmy and Cherie living together. Photo: Hong Kong International Film Festival

Off-color humor with a smattering of Cantonese profanities add just the right flavor to a serving of Hong Kong’s civic life. They are staples of the comic sensibilities that director Pang Ho-cheung is unlikely to give up.

As a master of peeling back the layers of this complex city to feature the essence of its colloquial culture, this fast-rising Hong Kong auteur, however, doesn’t really fancy the “local film” label that pigeonholes his creations.

Maybe it is his open mind in recognizing that “all movies are commercial films,” as well as his frank admissions – “I don’t care where I produce the film or who will be the investors” – that helped him better embrace capital from mainland China.

It is perhaps this approach that has seen his work shown beyond the city limits and garner warm reception across the border, especially his romantic comedy series, Love in a Puff and Love in the Buff.

Five years after their triumph, Pang brought his latest’s directorial effort, Love Off the Cuff, the third instalment in the acclaimed series to open the 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival on April 11, and once again, test the tastes of a Chinese audience.

A simple love story with complex problems

Jimmy and Cherie, the Hong Kong young couple played by Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung, first met and fell in love when they stood around a rubbish bin to have a cigarette due to the city’s indoor smoking ban in 2010’s Love in a Puff.

In 2012’s Love in the Buff, the couple endure a rough patch when third parties intervened in their relationship after they moved to Beijing seeking job opportunities, but eventually got back together.

In the latest instalment, it is the seventh year of their relationship and Pang has finally thought of a new hurdle worth a feature film. “After living together for a long time, couples may begin to have doubts about whether their partner’s core personality is the missing part of themselves that they are looking for,” he said.

Pang believes that during a crisis, especially when lives are at stake, one’s true inner nature will emerge. Thus a scene featuring Jimmy and Cherie’s first reaction in an earthquake is designed as a point at which they reconsider their relationship. And this scene is based on Pang’s personal experience in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

In a Tokyo hotel, Pang had almost finished promoting one of his films when the magnitude-9.1 earthquake struck. “My Japanese friend, a girl I have known for years, was there, too,” Pang recalled. “I tried to pull her over to hide under a table, but she was too frightened to move an inch.” Pang chose to duck under the table, moving it closer to his friend, and kept yelling at and beckoning her to come share the shelter.

They both survived the earthquake, however, Pang couldn’t avoid an argument with his friend. The girl blamed him for not standing alongside her to face the danger together, while Pang believes that if he had stayed with her, he couldn’t protect her better, so he decided to be rational and safe.

The argument struck a chord in Pang who began to think about whether men and women have a different understanding of what is important. This idea becomes a central issue run through Jimmy and Cherie’s cohabitation in the new instalment of the romantic comedy series.

It’s not just a local film, but a romantic comedy

Even though the juicy and subtle punchlines are mostly lost in translation from Cantonese to Putonghua, it did not prevent many mainland audiences from laughing or crying with the Hong Kong lovers.

“I’ve watched it at least five times, each of the first two instalments,” said Summer Zhengxia Li, a fan who came to the April 11 premiere.

On Douban, a Chinese website similar to the online IMDB film database where most mainland fans are keen to rate movies and write reviews, 300,565 people have given Love in a Puff an average score of 8 out of 10 as of April 18, equivalent to four stars. The website also said this rating was better than 85% of the love stories as well as 87% of the comedies on its database.

It is a distinctive success, as many co-productions today can only succeed in one of the home markets. Hong Kong directors who cannot afford to abandon mainland capital may be interested to know what’s the secret weapon behind Pang conquering the market across the border with a local film.

Hong Kong director Pang Ho-cheung. Photo: Asia Times/Poo Yee Kai

“Why would people think this success is because it is a Hong Kong movie? It is a romantic story in essence,” said Pang, answering his own question. Audiences in various markets are not that different from each other, and their perceptions and thoughts about love are 80% or 90% the same, he added.

Pang believes there is no such thing as local or mainland films. It’s the censorship in mainland China and the lack of a film-rating system, which make it impossible for some Hong Kong movies to be released across the border.

“Many people have the misconception that films censored by China could be grouped as local movies,” said Pang. Horror films such as The Eye and the gangster series, Young and Dangerous, failed to reach mainland cinemas because of their themes, said Pang. “But could you say Hong Kong local films are only about gangsters or contain horror themes?”

And what is the secret formula to winning over mainland audiences? There is none, says Pang, it all goes back to the story itself, whether it strikes a chord in each and everyone’s hearts.

The magic of the Jimmy and Cherie could be that fans can see themselves in the film. “At first, I just love the way Pang presents those vulgar and lewd jokes, making me laugh my head off without feeling uncomfortable,” said Li, who says she has found different moments in the first two films resonated with her at different points in her own relationships.

Pang also knows how to keep an audience involved, especially in his imperfect character leads. “Jimmy and Cherie have a lot of shortcomings and problems, and they always hesitate to make decisions,” said Pang, “just like most people in relationships.”

But will Love Off the Cuff still meet audience expectations of a story they can see themselves in? Loyal fan Li had one criticism: “The flamboyant and bombastic rock-band style marriage proposal is not affordable to most ordinary people.”

The film will be out in cinemas in Hong Kong and in mainland China on April 27.