This Hong Kong New Year's film is the only one to play here (at least at the theatre I went to) in Cantonese. It’s also the only Lunar New Year film this year to follow the tradition of the all-star comedy fests that define the New Year's movie as a genre as opposed to simply a release date. Movies like Johnnie To’s The Eighth Happiness, Clifton Ko’s Alls Well, Ends Well (and its many sequels), or Tsui Hark’s The Chinese Feast are wacky comedies enlivened with a mix of slapstick and verbal comedy, ultimately feel-good films centered around themes of family and togetherness. Pang Ho-cheung’s Missbehavior is firmly in this tradition. Best known here for his 2008 romantic comedy Love in a Puff, and its sequels Love in the Buff and Love Off the Cuff, Pang began his career as a novelist (his Fulltime Killer was adapted by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai in 2001). His films are uniquely concerned with language, specifically the Cantonese slang of young urban professionals. From his earliest black comedies (You Shoot, I Shoot and AV) to his more recent rom-coms, and even in his more prestigious projects (the terrific Isabella from 2005 and the less good Exodus and Aberdeen) Pang has eschewed mainstream success on the Mainland in favor of exploring the idiosyncrasies of 21st century Hong Kong. In this respect his stands almost alone among his contemporaries.
Missbehavior follows a group of friends, formerly close, now somewhat estranged, as they unite to help out one of their own who is in trouble at work. Through a complicated series of missteps, she has misplaced the breast milk her boss had left in the break room fridge, and needs to replace it by the end of the day or be fired. The friends are neatly divided into warring pairs (two women with a man and suspicion of infidelity in common, two women who used to be in a band together but now have achieved different levels of success, a gay couple who are having trouble communicating), all of which have their issues resolved by the end of their silly adventure. The antics are fun, the language salty (Love in a Puff famously got a Category III rating, Hong Kong’s NC-17 equivalent, because of its extensive, creative, and thoroughly realistic use of profanity), the cast attractive and fun. The best moments come from Lam Suet as the world’s worst waiter, but there are fine performances as well from Gigi Leung in the lead role and cameos from familiar faces Miriam Yeung, Roy Szeto, Susan Shaw, and Isabella Leong.
The film’s most inspired image though is a repeated interstitial shot, an image of the Hong Kong cityscape, all chrome and glass towers, with various images of the cast on their quests projected upon them, literally imposing these characters and their mission upon the city itself. It’s an off-hand, effortless profundity, equating the city and its people. Maybe it’s just because I recently watched the MCU Doctor Strange adaptation, with its appallingly phony Hong Kong set that was assembled in England and looks like a 1930s American Chinatown, but I appreciate images caught on the fly of Hong Kong as it is. Pang works quickly (Missbehavior was reportedly put together in only two weeks), with real Hong Kong stars in real Hong Kong places speaking real Hong Kong language. It’s a tradition that, like the goofy and ridiculously fun and catchy song and music video that play over the films opening credits, is becoming increasingly rare in the flattened, transnational space of contemporary Chinese cinema.