American romantic comedies have become so contrived, inhuman, and insidiously conservative that a trifle as purely pleasurable as the Chinese romance Love in the Buff may come as a profound shock. The film, a sequel to Love in a Puff, has an exhilarating tossed-off quality that characterized many of the most entertaining works of the French New Wave. One scene slides seemingly without effort into the next, and the relentless momentum of the film can make you dizzy. Writer-director Pang Ho-cheung doesn’t bother with exposition, plopping us right into the thicket of the highs, confusions, and anxieties of being both young enough to subscribe to the idea of the fantasy of a happy romantic ending and old enough to fear that such notions should, like the job you longed to have in grade school, be effectively put to bed.
The film opens with Cherie (Miriam Yeung) already fed up with her boyfriend Jimmy (Shawn Yue), who she feels is taking her for granted. He routinely blows off dates and family engagements, usually without any notice, only to assure her that he had to work late or had to discuss another job opportunity with an old boss. Usually Jimmy is telling at least part of the truth, but he neglects to mention the hours of drinking with friends that those responsibilities usually lead to, a convenient omission Cherie is clearly aware of. They bicker, make up, and bicker again, with Jimmy usually managing to soothe Cherie over with some calculated bit of immature cuteness. (Cherie is four years older than Jimmy, which would appear to be a bigger deal in Hong Kong than anywhere in the U.S.) But eventually Cherie grows tired of the manipulation and, in effort to “move on” (perhaps the most self-delusional two words in the canon of romantic experience), she moves out of their apartment and in with her mother, which spurs Jimmy to take a new position in Beijing. But Cherie’s soon promoted to manager at a new branch of a cosmetics store opening in…guess which city?
This plot, of course, is a contemporary Chinese update of the classic comedy of remarriage that Hollywood used to produce by the dozens until they…stopped. At one point, the American romantic comedy, at its peak in the 1930s and 1940s, was a testament to the rebellious idea of the American spirit, to shirking the shackles of hypocritical formality in mad pursuit of your inner passions—a romantic whim that briefly resurfaced in Jonathan Demme ‘80s films. But at some point in the 1990s, the American romantic comedy became akin to those subliminal alien messages in They Live; the American rom com is now largely a shrill testament to the pleasures of giving up an unstable lover in favor of a blandly pretty someone who’ll always keep the fridge full and have money to put in the 401K—in other words, odes to consumerism. The contemporary romantic comedy barely even allows time for actual affection; the courtships are usually about as romantic as business mergers, because that’s what, in essence, they usually are.
For years other countries like Britain, Spain, and China have been besting the U.S. in most of the genres that once nearly defined American movies, or at least the ones that people usually remember with fondness. This is a romantic comedy that’s intoxicatingly reckless, about two lovers who dump more reasonable—and, in a welcome complication, nicer—people because they can’t get out of one another’s systems. And it’s easy to see why. Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue, besides being individually terrific and lively, have explosive chemistry and Pang time and again gives them scenes that do that chemistry justice. Love in the Buff has some of most erotic foreplay in any movie I’ve seen: Pang is alive to the exhilaration and slight intimidation of touch; moments here of people tentatively grasping one another’s fingers, or gingerly kissing one another’s protruding tongues, carry more sexual weight than any half-dozen gymnastically impressive bouts of lovemaking I can recall in recent cinema.
And it’s a sign of Pang’s humanity that there are no bad guys and that peripheral characters are allowed happy vignettes that contribute little to the proper plot while meaning everything in terms of the film’s grandly naïve theme of love as our birthright. Cherie and Jimmy are obnoxious, self-absorbed terrors, and so are you at some point if you’re so lucky. Admittedly, there are some disappointments: The film has a conventional third act culminating in the usual last-minute reunion before a lover’s imminent departure, which hems the film in just as it’s about to seemingly really explode into passionate lunacy. But that hardly matters, as Love in the Buff, at its best, is yummy pop bliss.