J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

HK Cinema at SFFS ’14: Uncertain Relationship Society

Li Ling’s social network is stuck in the Bermuda Triangle of friend zones. The interconnected group of former classmates have not just one but multiple ambiguous platonic friendships with each other. Unfortunately, none of it comes with benefits, despite the fact everyone is ridiculously attractive in Heiward Mak’s surprisingly grounded Uncertain Relationship Society (trailer here), which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

Ever since high school, Lam Yat Min always had a talent for music and eyes for Li, an aspiring artist. It might be reciprocal, but neither ever takes a chance to find out. He has a similar long-term non-relationship with campus bombshell Kaman Kong, except maybe somewhat less so. For her part, Li has a parallel friendship, or whatever, with Lee Choi-wa, a formerly nebbish student who blossoms into a metrosexual apprentice hairdresser.

Lee’s barely closeted photographer roommate Ho Yip also seems to harbor complicated feelings toward him. At least he does not have an ulterior motives when he uses up-and-coming model Kong in his shoots. Instead, Lam’s not quite rival is her borderline abusive hipster boyfriend, Leung Wai On, whom she can never quite break up with.

So yes, its complicated, but somehow Mak avoids a host of potential tonal pitfalls. Her blueprint script and the cast’s largely improvisational method never come across overly glib like an episode of Friends or too precious in a Zach Braff-Noah Baumbach kind of way. Rather it all feels pretty real and even zeitgeisty. While never explicitly political, the main characters’ romantic frustrations are echoes by their professional disappointments and a sense that the system is stacked against Hong Kong’s Generation Y, who have been disproportionately drawn to the recent Umbrella Protests.

As Li, Venus Wong is impressive in just about every way, seamlessly depicting her evolution from a shy student to a mature (but still unfulfilled) woman. Playing it meta-style, HK model Kong is almost painfully vulnerable and emotionally exposed. HK pop idol Anjo Leung is relatively down to earth and musically credible as Lam Yat Min, but Cantopop star Eman Lam often steals scenes right out from under him as the boss of his boutique corporate jingle house.

Just about everyone has had their maddening uncertain relationship, but it is difficult to imagine balancing two of them simultaneously over five or six years. Nevertheless, Mak juggles the numerous characters and the frequent time shifts with relative ease. It is not the sort of annoying film that it surely sounds like on paper. Nonetheless, the constant hashtag commentaries are a mistake, already giving the film a dated time capsule vibe. Recommended for its overall vitality and the exiting work from its stars-in-the-making, Uncertain Relationship Society screens this Saturday (11/15) as part of the 2014 edition of the SFFS’s Hong Kong Cinema series.

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