SIFF 2015: Temporary Family (Cheuk Wan-chi, 2014)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.19912102

Reading the description for this comedy about people in the Hong Kong forced to share a luxury flat while they try to flip it in an over-competitive bubble market, I was hoping for a Hong Kong version of The More the Merrier, the 1943 George Stevens movie in which Jean Arthur and Joel McRea are forced to share an apartment in wartime Washington DC and are maneuvered into love by their third roommate, the portly, angelic goofball Charles Coburn. And my hopes were more or less fulfilled. Like the Stevens film, it’s a screwball but with a slower pace and deeper heart that its immediate generic predecessors (for the earlier film, the verbal anarchy of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges; for the new one, the tangled webs of Wai Ka-fai and Johnnie To’s consumerist rom-coms like The Shopaholics or the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart movies). Both movies have thin premises stretched almost farther than they can go, a delicate balance of cynical humor and dopey romanticism with a liberal amount of schmaltz.

Nick Cheung (a two-time Hong Kong Film Award Best Actor winner, probably best known in the US as the most-badass killer in Johnnie To’s Election movies) plays a  real estate agent whose girlfriend has given him one year to earn enough money to buy a 1,000 square foot apartment so they can get married. He ropes three other people into a speculation scheme: they buy a luxury flat and flip it after the value doubles in Hong Kong’s booming market. Then, of course, the market crashes. The three are: Sammi Cheng, a recently divorced woman with an impressive collection of shoes; Angelababy, Cheung’s step-daughter from a previous marriage, dressing down as a tomboy courier; and Oho Ou, Cheung’s co-woker, the young son of a wealthy family who is attempting to experience life on his own terms.

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In the Hong Kong tradition, the bulk of the film alternates slapstick comedy and personal melodrama, as the characters get to know each other and form the expected pseudo-family. The tonal shifts aren’t as deftly balanced as in the best examples of the genre (Cheng in particular suffers a bit in an emotional scene, surprising given how she is always the greatest thing ever), but it does have one truly iconic scene as well as what is sure to be the funniest glow-in-the-dark condom joke of this year’s festival. Director Cheuk Wan-chi (aka GC Goo-bi) is wildly prolific as a comedian, writer, actress and TV personality, but this is only her third film as director. She and her DP Charlie Lam emphasize the bright crispness of the candy colors of 21st century digital Hong Kong, images rapidly becoming as memorably cinematic as the neon reds and blues that defined the colony in the 1980s.

Temporary Family  plays May 20th at the Uptown and May 22nd at the Egyptian.

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