|Claustrophobia opens with a Friday evening carpool ride led by Tom (Ekin Cheng), a stable, married Hong Kong guy with one child and one more on the way. Tom is a marketing manager at an import/export firm, and each evening he drives his subordinates home from their office in Aberdeen. His team is a diverse bunch: experienced old-timer Karl (Felix Lok), the geeky and somewhat needy John (Derek Tsang), and the smart-talking, sassy Jewel (Chucky Woo). Rounding out the group is the sensible and pretty Pearl (Karena Lam), who lives in New Territories-located Shatin, and is always the very last to get dropped off on Tom's nightly carpool rides.
John and Jewel get into an argument and, emotionally upset, John asks Tom for a sudden drop-off, whereupon he stalks off in a huff. The conflict between John and Jewel is never explicitly explained, but their emotions and dialogue point to a possible relationship that's now on the rocks. The group continues on, dropping off each member before Tom and Pearl are left alone in the car. However, there's a palpable, wordless tension between the two. Finally, Tom makes his move: he tells Pearl that she should consider seeking employment elsewhere, and even provides her with a contact for an open managerial position at another company. Instead of being grateful for the new opportunity, Pearl is incredulous. She dares Tom to fire her, after which she angrily leaves, their conflict unresolved. Obviously, work on Monday is going to be awesome.
No stranger to love stories, screenwriter Ivy Ho (Comrades, Almost a Love Story) makes her directorial debut with an exceptionally subtle one. Claustrophobia is a thematically universal, but still very Hong Kong-specific tale of two people who flirt with a little office romance. The subject is quite a popular one in Hong Kong, and has been a focus or subplot in numerous films and television dramas over the last decade. But unlike the crowd-pleasing shenanigans of Needing You, Hong Kong's most successful entry in this genre, Claustrophobia refuses commercial romantic comedy structure and themes, going instead for deeply felt emotions.
However, the emotions here run so deep that they're barely discernible to the audience. Tom and Pearl bury their emotions so completely around each other that they surface only in small, telling ripples, with all-consuming passion or risk-it-all leaps of faith something never considered. Like its title suggests, these people are trapped by circumstance and emotion, and there's really no way out. Instead of confronting the problem, Tom and Pearl muddle silently through, avoiding their emotions and sometimes each other. There's a familiarity and even a poignancy to these stuck-in-the-mud characters, as their emotions could strike a chord with anyone who's had a deep attraction towards someone at the office. However, this is a film, and after a while, the characters' inability to move forward can frustrate an audience.
Adding to the frustration is the film's unusual structure, which starts with the tipping point in Tom and Pearl's relationship and moves backwards in time. Instead of showing us the aftermath of their standoff, we see the minor events and incidents that lead to the unspoken denial of their mutual attraction. The clock is turned back one month for a scene, and then another two months for a following scene, and so on and so forth. Audiences visit a slice of Pearl's life at each stop in time, and bear witness to the buried emotions, sidelong glances, and barely-telling minutiae that hint at Tom and Pearl's burgeoning attraction. Finally, the film reveals what happened one year prior to Tom and Pearl's impasse, with a conclusion or meaning hopefully attained.
Ho's choice of a narrative structure is intriguing, but the film's measured, realistic style mutes its effectiveness. Each scene is told in its complete, banal, and sometimes boring entirety, thanks to storytelling that is very nearly real time, and characters that choose not to say very much. Nobody communicates directly; characters converse indirectly with body language and small talk, with more weight found in what isn't being said. Eventually, the question has to be asked: where is this entire thing going? Is the final reveal one year ago a suitable payoff for the film's uncommon structure and lack of forthcoming? Will Claustrophobia finally break free of its self-imposed narrative shackles and actually tell us something?
Maybe this is a spoiler, but the answer to that question is "No". Claustrophobia culminates in a small, appropriate irony, but the journey there is so subtle that audiences may not be able to connect the dots. Ho doesn't spell out her intentions, and simply asks the audience to figure it out for themselves. If the audience is willing to do that - that is, if they're willing to piece together the entire backwards journey on their own - then the film can attain a quiet, felt resonance. The problem: some audiences may not be willing or patient enough to follow along, and even those who follow the film through to its end may feel that the payoff is too slight for the investment. Some films end with a bang while others end with a whimper, but not Claustrophobia. It just ends, abruptly and nearly silently.
Ivy Ho's storytelling demonstrates tremendous integrity, which is both the film's strength and weakness. The weakness is that the film becomes frustrating, as it hints at much but shows very little. The strength is that the film's refusal to reveal effectively places the audience into the character's lives, plus it ends up putting weight on every emotion or word that isn't expressed. The film traps its audience in much the same manner as its characters are trapped by their emotions and situations - with an anxious, sometimes suffocating weight. Feelings are not expressed, but each character can be seen struggling with them silently. In the end, the payoff may simply be the impressive depth of character and emotion on display. The characters don't say or do much, but their emotions can be seen and even felt - and that contrast can be a very compelling one. Occasionally there are some missteps, like some double-edged dialogue that feels out of place in the film's reality, but Ho keeps things consistently unassuming and subtle.
A great deal hinges on the actors, and they impress in largely subdued roles. Karena Lam's performance is the heart of the film, which is not a surprise considering her past work. Subtle dramatic emotion is one of her specialties, her performances in July Rhapsody and even Silk possessing the same understated quality that she displays here. Ekin Cheng is opaque but not wooden, and his performance is excellent in its noticeable restraint. Both effectively create characters who express themselves subtly, and even the supporting characters take on an earned reality. Also, the film's technical credits are superior, with Mark Lee's cinematography and Yee Chung-Man's production design and costumes adding to the film's richness. Claustrophobia is a hard film to truly enjoy, as it's so indirect that it requires active participation by the audience to dig beneath its exterior. What's down there, however, is substantial, possessing a weight and resonance that lasts long after the closing credits. In the end, Claustrophobia is a lot like life, which is why it's so affecting. And also so frustrating. (Kozo 2008)