Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Film review 影評: Claustrophobia 親密- (Not) A Love Story?

Director: Ivy Ho 岸西
Starring: Karena Lam 林嘉欣, Ekin Cheung 鄭伊健
Length: 100 mins
Year: 2008

Watching this on a early afternoon weekday screening two weeks ago, I remember the audible groaning a few rows back midway in the film. It was clear that Claustrophobia won't go down well for the couples, let alone the mainstream audience, who pay to see it under the impression that it's just another date movie.(Speaking of which, why are Basic Love 愛情故事 and
L-O-V-E 愛到底 entering the already crowded market including Give Love 愛得起 and Love Connected 保持愛你, 2 weeks after Valentine's Day?) Indeed, it has so far made merely around HKD$80,000 in its 2 week run.

But commercial success never guarantees the quality of a film, and fortunately Claustrophobia is a peculiar gem worth watching.

At its simplest, the film is a backwards narrative
(like Francois Ozon's 5x2 and Harold Pinter's Betrayal), spanning a year, of the relationship between Pearl (Karena Lam) and his boss Tom (Ekin Cheung). But Claustrophobia is no office rom-com like Johnnie To 杜琪峯 and Wai Kar Fai's 韋家輝 Needing You... 孤男寡女. Strikingly, it's not immediately clear what type of relationship we're witnessing: an affair, a lapse of romance in a platonic or co-worker relationship, or a case of unrequited love.

The interactions between Pearl and Tom when they are alone are central to the plot. But these moments are few: co-workers,
firemen, and Tom's wife and daughter either interrupt or are awkwardly present. There aren't any outward expressions of love either: no sex scenes, no kissing or embracing, no flirting. We're left to pick out words and nuances that hint something more than a strictly business relationship.

It's the rigidity of the story structure and its ambiguities that infuriate many of the local audience. A quick browse in the Yahoo! Hong Kong movies website gives us comments such as '文藝爛片'- crap art film; '
我中計了'- I got screwed; '沒內容.沒連接.沒意義'- no content, no connections, no meaning. The mostly inane dialogue might also make some wonder why there's a Best Screenplay nomination for the film at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards.

Whether or not you'll appreciate the film depends on your patience and willingness to go with the flow and fill in the gaps yourself. Claustrophobia is a delicate film, grounded on realism, and makes no attempt to spoonfeed the audience and explain everything.


On the surface, Claustrophobia, as its English title suggests, takes a pessimistic view on office relationships and contemporary Hong Kong life in general. Co-workers either act raucously or backstab each other. Pearl and Tom are stuck with them at work, on the way home and even after hours. There's no glimpse of a fulfilled private life, and any relationship can't last in this city of OT workers.

But there's a duality to the film. The Chinese title of the film bears a contradictory meaning- 'intimacy'. However, with its story structure, the film gradually becomes warmer. We witness Pearl recalling her dream about Tom at the same location as the tense encounter at the beginning. The subplot of another ambiguous relationship between the two young co-workers only reveals itself later in the film. And in the film's most sublime and perhaps autobiographical moment (Ivy Ho used to work in an ad agency), we see Pearl and Tom musing about love and life while a cheesy TV advert featuring two young lovers loops over and over in the background.

By going against the chronological order and ending with an earlier pleasant point of Pearl and Tom's relationship, Claustrophobia also explores the possibilities of love, or even the inevitable feelings we have for those who we, while we don't exactly choose to, interact with each day.


At a time when big budget costume dramas (without the imagination of the glorious works of the 1980s) and cheap love stories (essentially promotional vehicles for pop idols) dominate Hong Kong's output, Claustrophobia is a breath of fresh air. Though an industry veteran (she wrote Comrades, Almost a Love Story 甜蜜蜜 and July Rhapsody 男人四十), Ivy Ho's assured directorial debut is a welcoming introduction to a new voice in Hong Kong cinema.

Claustrophobia is still screening at Broadway Mongkok.

Interview with Ivy Ho (Chinese)

Variety review

The Hollywood Reporter review

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