Hong Kong, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 110 mins.
Director: Peng Xiuhui 彭秀慧 [Kearen Pang].
A remarkable re-imagining in film terms of a one-woman Hong Kong play by its creator/performer.
Hong Kong, Mar 2005. Lin Ruojun is 29, has a good job as a manager in cosmetics company La Casa, a boyfriend of 10 years’ standing, and an independent life in her own flat. But she’s still aware she’s still single as she turns 30 on 4 Mar. On a minibus one day, she bumps into an old acquaintance (Liang Zuyao) who tries to interest her in a retirement plan. At work she’s promoted by her self-made boss Elaine (Jin Yanling) to regional marketing head, though the position brings a lot of extra pressure. At drinks with old schoolfriends everyone natters about marriage, men and plastic surgery. In a taxi on the way to her parents the driver (Ge Mingui) offers her unsought advice on life. Later she suggests on the phone to her boyfriend Yang Zihao (Yang Shangbin) that they go away together somewhere, but he’s non-committal. Her landlord then drops by to tell her she has to move as soon as possible, as he’s sold the flat. With no time to find a place to live, Lin Ruojun stays with Yang Zihao for a while but it doen’t work out. She then takes up a recommendation by her landlord, to stay in the flat of his nephew’s best friend, Wang Tianle (Zheng Xinyi), who’s in Paris for a month. The jolly, eccentric Wang Tianle has left Lin Ruojun a welcome video, and by reading her scrapbook Lin Ruojun discovers they share the same birthday. When her father, who’s been suffering from Alzheimer’s, passes away, Lin Ruojun starts to feel alone and work pressures get to her. She resigns her job to have a rest, and then looks to Yang Zihao, whom she hasn’t heard from in weeks, for companionship.
The biggest compliment that can be paid to 29+1 is that you’d never guess it was originally a one-woman play. In a remarkable film debut, Hong Kong actress-writer-director Peng Xiuhui 彭秀慧 [Kearen Pang], 42, has taken her own creation that she’s lived with and performed for over a decade and fluidly re-imagined it in another medium while still retaining – as clips from various productions demonstrate over the end titles – the essence of the original stagings. Despite its ultimately conventional message, 29+1 is one of the best, and least self-regarding, films to have come from Hong Kong’s indie sector in years.
Peng was one of four writers on the Macau-set mood piece Isabella 伊莎贝拉 (2006), directed and co-written by Peng Haoxiang 彭浩翔 [Pang Ho-cheung], in a few of whose other films she’s had bit parts. But her main career has been in the theatre. For her movie debut, she’s sensibly surrounded herself with a skilled Hong Kong crew: d.p. Guan Zhiyao 关智耀 [Jason Kwan], who’s done everything from action films (Cold War 寒战, 2012) to comedies by Peng Haoxiang (Love in the Buff 春娇与志明, 2012); production designer Chen Qi 陈七 and costume designer Zhi Huishan 植慧珊 (The Bounty 悬红, 2012; The Midas Touch 超级经理人, 2013); and composers Huang Ailun 黄艾伦 [Alan Wong] and Weng Weiying 翁玮盈 [Janet Yung]. But she’s also taken some bold risks in the casting, choosing the often-derided trash-film queen Zhou Xiuna 周秀娜 [Chrissie Chau] and goofy comedienne Zheng Xinyi 郑欣宜 – daughter of the late Shen Dianxia 沈殿霞 [Lydia Shum], Hong Kong’s most famous “fattie” actress – to play the two main roles.
It’s a gamble that pays off in spades. Both actresses were in the formulaic comedy-romance iGirl 梦情人 (2016), where they acquitted themselves respectably as robots who discover human feelings. In 29+1 they’re cast as polar opposites – Zhou as Lin Ruojun, an independent career woman with a longtime boyfriend, Zheng as Huang Tianle, a jolly, somewhat eccentric tubbie who’s unattached but is finally realising her dream of travelling to Paris. Their lives kind-of intersect when Lin Ruojun temporarily rents Huang Tianle’s vacant flat and, as her professional and emotional situation starts to implode, finds succour in the absent Huang Tianle’s private scrapbook. In the background looms their shared 30th birthday, traditionally seen in Asia as a marriage Rubicon for women (ergo, best to call it 29+1): despite Lin Ruojun’s modern attitudes, it’s still a mental barrier for her, whereas for the unconventional Huang Tianle it’s nothing special. In an especially moving finale, Lin Ruojun learns from her absent soulmate that life is about more than one’s career and age.
Not for the first time, Zhou, 32, shows she’s capable of more than she’s often been credited with in the past decade, and is totally believable as a modest career woman who starts to feel overwhelmed by her promotion (and doubts about her boyfriend). However, it’s Zheng, 30, as the jolly but ultimately tragic figure who provides the film’s emotional climax, starting with a Big Twist that leads to a touching scene with her best male pal (Cai Hanyi 蔡瀚亿, good) and then broadens out to include Lin Ruojun in the movie’s inspiring coup de théâtre, based on the original 2005 play. En route, Hong Kong-based Taiwan actress Jin Yanling 金燕玲 [Elaine Jin], 62, contributes some quiet heft as Lin Ruojun’s self-made boss with life advice.
Where the film loses a point is in the basic content which, though smartly packaged and well played, is pretty conventional. Though Huang Tianle is a sympathetic character, she’s drawn from cliches of mainstream Asian cinema; Lin Ruojun less so, though her character is often put in generic situations. 29+1 is hardly “commercial” by Hong Kong standards, but it is more mainstream than arty – no bad thing, but here it does seem to limit the film’s horizons. Occasional songs jog things along but again underline the picture’s limitations.
Many references are made, via the Huang Tianle character, to the romantic 68-minute musicvideo 日落巴黎 (literally “Sunset in Paris”) starring Zhang Guorong 张国荣 [Leslie Cheung], Zhang Manyi 张曼玉 [Maggie Cheung] and Zhong Chuhong 钟楚红 [Cherie Chung]. Made for TVB, and first broadcast in 1989, it was directed by Xiao Chaoshun 萧潮顺, with an “honorary director” 嘉宾导演 credit to Wu Yusen 吴宇森 [John Woo], then on a roll after his A Better Tomorrow 英雄本色 films. Especially following Zhang Guorong’s death at an early age, it’s taken on an iconic status in Hong Kong pop culture.
Presented by China 3D Digital Entertainment (HK). Produced by Asian Rich (HK).
Script: Peng Xiuhui [Kearen Pang]. Play: Peng Xiuhui [Kearen Pang]. Camera: Guan Zhiyao [Jason Kwan] (Hong Kong), Huang Wenruo (Paris). Editing: Li Qianming, Peng Xiuhui [Kearen Pang]. Music: Huang Ailun [Alan Wong], Weng Weiying [Janet Yung]. Production design: Chen Qi. Art direction: Zeng Jiabi. Costume design: Zhi Huishan. Sound: Zheng Yingyuan [Phyllis Cheng], Nie Jirong, Ye Zhaoji. Action: Huang Weiliang [Jack Wong]. Visual effects: Huang Hongda, Yu Tianlong (vfxNova Digital Productions).
Cast: Zhou Xiuna [Chrissie Chau] (Lin Ruojun/Christy), Zheng Xinyi (Huang Tianle), Cai Hanyi (Zhang Hanming), Yang Shangbin (Yang Zihao), Jin Yanling [Elaine Jin] (Elaine), Lin Haifeng [Jan Lamb] (Liang, landlord), Liang Zuyao (Xian/Dickson, old friend in minibus), Wang Zongyao (Jeff Lee), Ge Mingui [Eric Kot] (Xin, taxi driver), Zheng Danrui [Lawrence Cheng] (Dan, CD-shop owner), Zhou Jiayi (Jennifer, temperamental celebrity), Zhang Guoqiang (man on platform), Lai Weiling (Tina), Tang Yi (Doris), Gao Shaomin (Xinxin), Wang Jingwen (Tomato), Huang Xianguang (Lin Ruojun’s father), Liang Zhuomei (Lin Ruojun’s mother), Yuan Fuhua (Lin Ruojun’s uncle), Cen Jiaqi (Ken), Chen Huimin (Iris), Zhou Zhijun (Jason).
Premiere: Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (Closing Film), 31 Oct 2016.
Release: Hong Kong, 11 May 2017.