“Love’s not a competition” the heroine of Pang Ho-cheung’s Mainland rom-com Women Who Flirt (撒娇女人最好命, Sājiāo Nǚrén Zuìhǎo Mìng) snaps back, only according to almost everyone else that’s exactly what it is. Maintaining the slick, sophisticated atmosphere of his similarly themed Hong Kong comedies, Pang sheds his trademark salty humour but otherwise adopts the same mix of heartfelt silliness and acute social observation which have made his work so popular, neatly elevating the perhaps overly conventional narrative as two longterm best friends edge towards the realisation that they’ve been in love all along.
Tomboyish Angie (Zhou Xun) has been carrying a torch for handsome Marco (Huang Xiaoming) since their uni days but owing to personal awkwardness and entrenched social codes feels she can’t make the first move and has been patiently waiting for Marco to get the message. He, however, keeps fobbing her off, claiming that he just wants to focus on his career etc even while she, ironically, keeps encouraging him to get a girlfriend. Angie gave up her dreams of becoming a sculptress to stay close to her man and the pair of them now work together in Shanghai as restaurant consultants, posing as regular guests to give restaurateurs the lowdown on where they’re going wrong with their customer service. Trouble brews when Marco drops the bombshell that he’s met someone, Hailey (Sonia Sui Tang), an extremely irritating airhead he bumped into on an airport transport shuttle during a business trip to Taipei which, to add insult to injury, Angie had actually sent him on.
As expected, Angie is not happy about this development and turns to her friendship group who dub themselves the “Barbie Army” for help. The Barbie Army are firmly of the opinion that Hailey needs to go, not least so they can prove the superiority of Shanghai women over Taiwanese which they plan to do by showcasing their ability to flirt their way to success. Pang has great fun mocking entrenched societal gender codes, but does perhaps overdo it in the well developed cynicism of the Barbie Army who are all too happy to play along with society’s rules, roundly criticising Angie for her lifelong refusal to do so which is, they suggest, why Marco never got the memo. For his part, Marco reassures Hailey that he has no interest in Angie by referring to her as a “man” who “pees standing up”, later repeating the same logic to his guy friends who, unlike him, seem to be aware of Angie’s decade-long crush.
With the aid the Barbie Army, Angie tries to play Hailey at her own game by perfecting the art of flirting, neatly flagging up that men are no better in her various dating app suitors who turn out to be either odd (makeup consultants for the recently deceased) or crass and chauvinistic (handsy middle-aged mansplainers). Unwilling to play the game, Angie walks out with a direct “I hate you”, only to be reminded by the Barbie Army that “I hate you” is a powerful tool if you learn to use it like a child. This is something the intensely annoying Hailey seems to have perfected to Marco’s satisfaction, a worrying confirmation that infantilisation is the key to “cute” and that what men want is a fawning fool who is helpless without them.
Hailey is of course playing the game that Angie didn’t want to deign to play and largely doing it not out of love but of resentment. Marco out of earshot, she drops the cutesy voice and childish helplessness to tell Angie that she’s wasting her time, she can’t possibly win this battle of flirtations, though if Hailey was actually as secure as she made out perhaps she wouldn’t have needed to break cover and take on Angie in the first place. Nevertheless, Angie eventually comes to the conclusion that being a woman who flirts isn’t really for her, maybe she’s missed her chance and wasted too much time on a man who’s never going to notice. Meanwhile, Marco is having a series of parallel epiphanies in realising that women like Hailey are all about the game and she’ll soon enough by bored with him. His final declaration that he is in a way “gay” for Angie might be a little tone deaf not mention awkward in terms of its gender politics, but in its own way sweet as he comes to admit that he actually likes her for the “man” she is, acknowledging that the only reason he thought he wanted a “cute” girl was because he was afraid of real love.
Completing the gender reversals, it’s Marco who has to change, Angie’s supposed tomboyishness given the seal of approval as she uses the spectre of romantic disappointment to become her true self, pursuing her abandoned dream of becoming a sculptress rather than being forced to conform to an idea of idealised femininity which is perhaps itself mocked in Hailey’s extreme affectation and the willing cynicism of the Barbie Army. Sweet and acutely observed, Women Who Flirt swaps Pang’s salty humour for biting cynicism but in the end comes down on the side of love as the hapless romantics flirt their way towards self-realisation.
International trailer (English subtitles)