One of Hong Kong's most admired indie filmmakers of the past decade makes her home city commercial feature debut with The Lady Improper. The film is a refreshingly gentle, though occasionally awkward, drama about a woman's belated sexual liberation with the help of a good man and some suggestive food-preparation sessions.
Winner of the best new director prize at the 2012 Hong Kong Film Awards, Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan is revered locally for her low-key narrative style in films such as Lovers on the Road (2008) and Big Blue Lake (2011). She does bring a touch of sensitivity to The Lady Improper's most contrived of scenarios, albeit one that is purportedly "inspired by a true story".
As the film begins, Yuen Siu-man (played by Charlene Choi Cheuk-yin) is a gynaecology nurse whose inexplicable fear of physical intimacy leads to her divorce. After mistakes at work, the repressed divorcee soon returns to help out at her father's (Lau Wing) faltering restaurant.
When a Paris-educated master chef, the free-spirited Jiahao (Taiwanese actor Wu Kang-jen), is hired to take over the kitchen from her hospitalised father, Siu-man begins to learn more about her family's once-signature recipe - as it turns out that Jiahao's childhood memory is intricately linked to the restaurant's glorious past.
That is, however, not all that Jiahao brings to the table. As their sweaty cooking sessions unexpectedly turn sexual, the pair must also start to contemplate the nature of their relationship. Are they lovers? What about the comely grocery storekeeper (Ashina Kwok Yik-sum) Jiahao has casual sex with? Or the dorky customer (Alex Lam Tak-shun) who asks Siu-man out?
It should be obvious by now that Tsang's new film, unlike her previous efforts, doesn't tell the most delicate of stories. A subplot which sees Siu-man confront her psychological barrier and discover her sensuality through pole dance lessons, taught by an old friend (Hedwig Tam Sin-yin), may be easy on the eye, but is also embarrassingly corny.
Indeed, most eyes will stay on leading actress Choi, the Canto-pop star who first appeared to have given up on her idol persona for her traumatised character in 2015's Sara; she was rewarded with a best actress nod at the Hong Kong Film Awards. It is perfectly understandable that she would be eager to seek out another provocative part.
Her best actress nomination for The Lady Improper at the upcoming Hong Kong Film Awards suggests it's a gamble well taken. In the film, Choi surprises not so much with the dearth of garments on her body than she does by ditching the usual air of exaggerated seriousness that many have taken for bad acting. Her character here may be ridiculous but she certainly is not.
A final note on the film's production history. There are two versions currently existing of The Lady Improper: a 105-minute director's cut that was previously screened for critics but is now presumably shelved; and a 90-minute commercial release cut, reviewed here, that will open in Hong Kong cinemas this week.
Curiously, but not so surprisingly, the latter was put together by the production company without consultation with Tsang or her editor, the venerable Mary Stephen (also editor and associate producer of Tsang's 2014 documentary, Flowing Stories), though the director was eventually allowed to make some adjustments. Make of that what you will.
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