Isn't eight years too long to wait for a spinoff to La Brassiere? Writer-director Chan Hing-Ka obviously thinks not, because he's given us La Lingerie, another film about how a woman's undergarments hold the key to the exhortations of her modern soul. Or something like that. Hong Kong's leading purveyor of pop existential urban romantic comedies, Chan digs deep into his own well for this new effort, which he co-directed along with Janet Chun. The basic outline is the same as La Brassiere: yuppies who either work with or are obsessed with undergarments intermingle until they reach some sort of epiphany on their personal identity or romantic direction, whereupon they stride forward meaningfully and the film ends. Somewhere along the way there are gags and some deliberate overacting. You may have seen this film before. I know I have.
This is 2008 though, so the audience gets an updated cast of new actresses filling the film's omnipresent bras. Gigi Leung returns in a cameo as the snooty and sweet Lena, but the star here is rising box office babe Stephy Tang, who has seemingly found her big screen niche as sweet and naive romantic heroines. Tang is joined by hot young models du jour Janice Man (See You in You Tube) and JJ (Isabella, among other bit parts). Rounding out the front-and-center females are Kathy Yuen, who made a minor impression earlier this year in Yes, I Can See Dead People, and the top-heavy Maggie Li (also from See You in You Tube), who does little more than sport tight tops as bimbo office girl Lotion. Li gets little focus in the story, but she does get a prominent place on the film's demographic-pleasing "girls in underwear" poster. The film's marketing is all about pushing its young female quintet, so we'll play along and give them all individual mention. Creating hype is the media's job.
Tang is Miu Ho, a sweet and somewhat daffy virgin who's angling for a job as a lingerie designer. She seems to have the skills, but interviewer Lena (Gigi Leung) wants Miu to dig deeper into undergarment culture. Miu receives the title "Lingerie Researcher", and is assigned to look into the world around her to observe how underwear makes the woman - or, in some cases, vice-versa. Miu starts her duties by surreptitiously peeping at accidental exposures in everyday life and noting in copious voiceover how many of the exposures may not really be accidental. After all, lingerie is hidden beneath a woman's clothes, but the lingerie is eye-catching and expensive, indicating that perhaps the women do want it to be seen. What's the meaning behind this contradiction? Miu's underwear thesis is ostensibly the driving force behind La Lingerie's narrative, and Chan Hing-Ka and his co-screenwriters dig into their toolbox of undue metaphor to come up with their canned, cloying discoveries.
However, before this becomes Existential Underwear Theory 101, the film gets sidetracked by numerous plotlines that only have cursory connection to lingerie. Miu's aunt (Michelle Loo) passes on, leaving Miu and pal Donut (Janice Man) with a fully furnished flat containing lots of top-of-the-line lingerie. They live upstairs from a gold-digging stewardess (Kathy Yuen), whose undergarments keep getting stolen by a mysterious thief. She reports the thefts to the cops, and soon gets involved with investigating officer James Shum (Shine member Tsui Tin-Yau). Donut works at a lingerie store and is involved in an affair with an older man (Chan Fai-Hung), who offers her a fab pink bra as his first gift. Confident club girl CC (JJ) is a customer at Donut's workplace, and possibly discovers true love when she takes on a new client, virginal Harvard student Eugene (Andy On, speaking terrible Cantonese). CC also wears nice lingerie, thereby making the underwear connection tangible. Presumably, these plotlines are supposed to tie together in a way besides the thin lingerie link-up, though the filmmaker's actual success at doing so is questionable.
Miu has her own distraction; her colleagues tell her to watch out for the office lothario, marketing manager Lucas (Ronald Cheng), who quickly tries to bed Miu before failing spectacularly and going for the platonic friend deal instead. He offers to teach her how to attract guys (Suspension of disbelief problem #1: how does Stephy Tang have a problem attracting guys?), leading to numerous screwy and quite funny encounters with potential suitors, including two guys played by 6 Wing and C. Kwan of hip-hop group Fama. The supposed prize of the bunch is the "Prince of the Company", Antonio (TVB fixture Wong Cho-Lam), who becomes Miu's big ticket to a lucrative marriage and future. The problem: she may not really like Antonio, and who can blame her? As played by Wong, Antonio is narcissistic, overbearing and over-the-top bizarre - qualities that could earn Wong a "most annoying" award when the year's over. Wong's performance certainly has its amusing qualities, but his pronounced manic glee makes "too much" seem like an understatement.
Then again, Hong Kong people really like Wong Cho-Lam, and his baby-faced comic routine can be funny if one is familiar with who he is. Wong's free rein with the script is an indicator of both the biggest positive and negative of La Lingerie: it's exceptionally, exceptionally Hong Kong, and lacks the actors and appeal that would make it suitable for the Internet's Asian film hype crowd. The original La Brassiere had Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, Gigi Leung, and Carina Lau - all actors whose appeal extends beyond Hong Kong. The biggest star in La Lingerie is Ronald Cheng, who has not achieved international notice equal to his Hong Kong stature, and despite her recent box-office successes, Stephy Tang is similarly limited. JJ and Janice Man (who's also famous for her mistimed Sharon Stone-like comments about the China Earthquake) are very hot in Hong Kong right now, but nobody anywhere else likely knows who they are. Given the above factors, cameos from local celebrities, plus the film's decidedly local references and jokes, and you have a movie that probably can't play beyond Asia.
That's just fine though, because La Lingerie pretty much represents what Hong Kong Cinema is right now. The days of kung-fu spectaculars and crazy Category III thrillers are gone. The Hong Kong audience won't support those films, but they do manage to turn out in decent numbers for commercial urban comedies with overloaded big-name casts (e.g., Simply Actors, plus the omnipresent films from director Patrick Kong). This is the type of movie that keeps local Hong Kong Cinema alive, so props are deserved for its sheer existence. As a bonus, the film is actually quite entertaining, managing to be consistently funny even though its story isn't really successful. The whole "underwear as metaphor" theme is rather thin, but as fodder for gags and oddball characters, it works. La Lingerie is far from a coherent movie, and is also incredibly overlong. At two hours, it's not the drag that Sex and the City was, but the film never bores, and even when sentimentality surfaces, it's not overbearing or terribly distracting. For a two-hour Hong Kong-specific urban comedy, La Lingerie is enough to entertain.
Strangely, this happens despite most of the female cast failing to impress. Popular model Janice Man is unimpressive and even annoying as Donut, while JJ is burdened by her impure Cantonese - though since she's the only one of the lead actresses to actually appear onscreen in lingerie, she gets some extra credit. Kathy Yuen is fresh-faced, and makes up for her average acting with her clean, pretty looks. Oddly, it's the guys who are more distinctive. The dependable Chan Fai-Hung is very funny in his supporting role, and Ronald Cheng is simply great as Miu's true love interest Lucas. Hong Kong possesses a few actors who are instantly likable when playing jerks, and Ronald Cheng is currently one of the best. The normally stiff Tsui Tin-Yau is amusingly animated as the fastidious and horny James Shum, and his Shine bandmate Wong Yau-Nam adds to his range with a turn as a self-confessed pervert. La Lingerie is loaded with actors and actresses who would probably be bigger stars if Hong Kong Cinema wasn't in such dire straits. They don't uniformly impress, but as it is, they're fun to watch.
However, the film really is Stephy Tang's, and the actress turns in some of the best work of her generally unspectacular career. Tang has never been more likable or funny than as the sexy, daffy good girl of La Lingerie. When Tang first started out, it was easy to diss her for trading on her soft plastic good looks, and even now she's still a few levels below contemporaries like Charlene Choi. Still, Stephy Tang has come a long way, improving bit-by-bit as an actress while also gaining some traction at the Hong Kong box office. Calling her a skilled actor would be presumptuous, but Stephy Tang is worth noting for her solid popular appeal as well as her increasing likability - things that happen to be short supply right now for Hong Kong movies. As a film, La Lingerie is pretty much the same; the film isn't exceptional nor an accomplishment, but it earns credit by being funny more often than not. Given everything else that's happening for Hong Kong Cinema (that is, not very much), it'll do just fine. (Kozo 2008)