You know what they call women over 25 in China? “Christmas cake” – no one wants you after the 25th, so you’re condemned to sit on the shelf for all eternity like a piece of overproduced seasonal confectionary (a silly analogy because Christmas cakes, at least English ones, may outlive us all). Christy Lam lives in Hong Kong, not mainland China, and so her worries are a little less intense but still the dreaded 30 is causing its own share of panic and confusion in her otherwise orderly, tightly controlled life. In 29+1 Kearen Pang adapts her own enormously successful 2005 stage play about the intertwined lives of two very different women who happen to share a birthday and are each approaching the end of their 20s in very different ways. By turns melancholy and hopeful, 29+1 finds both women at a natural crossroads but rather than casting them into a bottomless pit of despair, allows each of them to rediscover themselves through a kind of second adolescence in which they finally figure out what it is they want out of life.
Christy Lam’s (Chrissie Chau) morning routine is fairly well entrenched. The alarm clock ticks over from 6.29 to 6.30 and she rises, goes through her beauty regime, decides on an appropriate outfit for work, eats a low cal breakfast and then heads out. A month before her 30th birthday, Christy begins to feel restless but her life is good – she has a long-term boyfriend and she’s just received a promotion at work where she is both liked and respected for her talents. So why does she feel so…unsatisfied?
Like the grim harbinger of encroaching doom, the rot has already set in as symbolised by a leak in her apartment which has created a nasty stain on her pristine white walls and even spread to some of her precious handbags. Her landlord pledges to look at it, but unbeknownst to Christy his wife has sold the apartment she’s been renting and she’s being kicked out with no notice. The landlord suggests moving in with her boyfriend but this proves unattractive for several reasons and so Christy ends up house sitting for a friend of the landlord’s nephew who is spending a month in Paris giving Christy some breathing space to figure things out.
Offering frequent asides to the audience, Christy’s acerbic observations of modern life and the expectations placed on women are both familiar and extremely funny. Running through her daily routine with wry irony, it’s clear Christy resents having to jump through all these hoops but also accepts them as just a part of being 29 in 2005. Catching a bus the morning after finding the leak in her apartment, she finds a former professor, now an insurance salesman, sitting across the aisle. After somewhat tactlessly remarking that she looks “completely different” from her college self, the professor then goes on to ask all the impolite questions people ask 29-year-old women as regards her job and marital status before getting into pension plans and mortgages. His insurance pitch proves a hit, and every other youngish woman (and one man acting on behalf of a little sister) picks up one of his information packs too.
At work at least, Christy is faring a little better. Unexpectedly receiving a promotion from her infinitely likeable if hardline boss, Elaine (Elaine Jin), Christy feels conflicted. The job is everything she thought she wanted, but suddenly she feels out-of-place – disconnected from her former colleagues and only now picking up on the immense gulf between herself, preparing to enter middle age with strict diets and bundling up to fight the aggressive air conditioning, and the new recruits – cheerfully wolfing down cakes and sugary drinks, dressed only in their light summer dresses and gossiping or boasting about slacking off even to the boss’ face. Despite her success Elaine is an approachable and friendly woman, prepared to give some real advice to her young protégé to the end that there are choices involved in everything and sometimes it comes to the point you need to make them rather than let things drag on.
Choices are things Christy’s avoided making, despite approaching life with an intense need for control. Facing several crises at once from her father’s Alzheimer’s to a strained relationship with her boyfriend of ten years, Christy is forced into a position she might not have welcomed but grudgingly admits may actually have been for the best. The apartment she ends up living in temporarily belongs to a young woman named Wong Ting-lok (Joyce Cheng) and, in contrast to Christy’s former home, is filled with a quirky sense of personality from the large Eiffel Tower of Polaroids pinned to the wall to the Leslie Cheung VHS collection and large number of vinyl records all of which Christy is welcome to enjoy. It is, however, Tin-lok’s “autobiography” that comes to capture her attention.
Tin-lok is a woman defined by her love of life and innate talent for cheerfulness even in adversity. Unlike Christy, her life has been less marked by the conventionally “successful” as she’s held down the same casual job in a record store run by a former celebrity for the past ten years and has never had a proper boyfriend despite her close friendship with Hon-ming (Babyjohn Choi) – the nephew of Christy’s landlord. Sometimes her lack of progress gets her down which explains the diary and the Polaroids – she likes to record her “achievements” in a more concrete way, but Tin-lok is, broadly, at home with herself. A recent crisis striking just as Christy’s had, prompts her into action – doing the things she’d always wanted to do in the knowledge that every moment is precious and there is no time to waste.
Pang gradually shifts into a kind of magical realism as the lives of Christy and Tin-lok begin to merge with Christy experiencing the life of Tin-lok from a first person perspective. Both women re-live old memories, inserting their current selves into a long passed era and looking back at it both with wistful nostalgia and the immediacy of unforgotten feeling. Christy’s trusted taxi driver laments that young people don’t know how to fix things anymore, every time something breaks they throw it out and buy a new one. Christy is learning how to make repairs to fractured dreams but thanks to some help from the resilient warmth of Tin-lok, finally figures out that things fall into place when you let them and you don’t have to make all your decisions based on what others have already decided for you.
Original trailer (English subtitles)