Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"All about Women" review (3)

More interesting for its intentions than for what it actually achieves, Tsui Hark's romantic comedy "All About Women" scores high on energy but low on real laffs. Co-written by Tsui and South Korean helmer Kwak Jae-yong ("My Sassy Girl"), this wacky portrait of three femmes searching for lurrv in contempo Beijing provides meaty roles for its leads, especially mainland thesp Zhou Xun and Taiwanese up-and-comer Kwai Lun-mei. However, like so much of Tsui's work, pic too often undermines itself with technical trickery and incoherent plotting. Despite lotsa hype, "Women" failed to make the earth move at Asian wickets in December.

Film is at least a considerable improvement on Tsui's career nadir, last summer's mystery-thriller "Missing," starring Angelica Lee. Where that movie seemed to signal complete creative bankruptcy for the veteran Hong Kong helmer, "Women" at least looks as though it occupied his attention for more than a weekend. And like Li Shaohong's similarly rocket-fueled "Baober in Love" (2004) -- also starring the versatile Zhou -- it tries to push the envelope with a genre that's still in its early days in mainland cinema.

With her goofy glasses and myopic pratfalls, Zhou conjures up memories of Josephine Hsiao's classic comedy creation Lam Ah-chun as Fan-fan, a doctor in the ultrasound department of a pristine medical center. Fan-fan suffers from "selective sclerosis," turning as rigid as a board whenever she's touched by men. To snag a b.f., she starts researching love pheromones, developing a patch that wreaks predictable havoc.

At the other end of the scale is high-powered, 30ish exec Tang Lu (Kitty Zhang), a drop-dead looker who attracts men like bees to honey but can't make real friends with other women. Somewhere between the two femmes is 19-year-old Internet novelist and rock-band vocalist Tieling (Kwai), a tomboyish dreamer who has a fantasy man of her dreams (Stephen Fung) and takes out her frustrations through boxing.

After spending almost a half-hour introducing the trio, the script tries to knit the characters together into a meaningful whole. But beyond linking Fan-fan and Tang via a chaotic plot involving the former's love-patches, the pic goes almost nowhere in (a long) two hours.

Zhou's gift for physical comedy and her sheer acting smarts make her klutzy cutout the most sympathetic character. Though largely stranded in her own story, Kwai ("Blue Gate Crossing," "Secret") confirms she's one of Taiwan's most interesting young talents. Zhang, almost unrecognizable from her decorative role in Stephen Chow's "CJ7," is OK as the careerist bitch but lacks real personality.

Good-quality visual effects run the gamut -- from split-screen to graphics interacting with characters -- but pic's HD origins give the whole shebang a cold feel. Chinese title means "Women Aren't Bad."

Camera (Technicolor, HD-to-35mm), Choi Sung-fai; editors, Tsui, Hideyuki Mako, Chan Ki-hop; music directors, Lee Shih-shiong, Paul Lee; art director, Lee Ta-chi; costume designer, Poon Wing-yan; visual effects supervisor, Christopher Bremble (Base FX). Reviewed at Golden Village VivoCity 9, Singapore, Dec. 19, 2008. Running time: 119 MIN.


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