Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠, Sunny Lau, 2021)

“People have always been scarier than ghosts” according to the hero of Sunny Lau’s retro horror comedy, Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠). He is not in a sense wrong, the gang of down on their luck filmmakers unexpectedly uncovering a minor historical injustice while operating an “authentic” haunted house, and while the ghosts may be scary they are merely attempting to connect and right an old wrong. Filled with cynical humour, Lau’s witty screenplay is often disparaging of the contemporary Hong Kong film industry and an increasingly cutthroat society but finds unexpected pathos in the romantic tragedy at its centre. 

As the film opens, fast talking producer Pierre (Matt Chow Hoi-Kwong) has been hauled in front of mob boss Choi (Eric Kot Man-fai) who wants to know what the holdup is on their mutual film project. Boss Choi meanwhile has another problem in that the hotpot restaurant he’s just bought isn’t doing so well owing to the place being haunted. Ever enterprising Pierre comes up with a new idea: opening an “authentic” haunted house on the same site featuring real ghosts while shooting a movie in the same location. Getting the green light, Pierre enlists prosthetics guy Gary (Yatho Wong) to design the interiors for a horror show inspired by the real life studio fire of 30-years previously supposedly started by a clown in resentment after being turned down by the leading lady. 

Hoping to get more information, the guys talk to surviving actor Uncle Cheong (Chan Kwok-pong) who spins them a tale of his own heroism, claiming that he tried to intervene when the clown attacked his girlfriend and co-star but had to step out only to return after getting a pager message about the fire and attempt to save what lives he could. Perhaps unexpectedly, Cheong is all for their haunted house endeavour even making an appearance on opening night, but the gang can’t help but feel there must be more to this strange tale of arson and revenge. 

Mildmannered in the extreme, Gary finds himself conflicted in running Pierre’s unusual enterprise, wondering if it’s corrupting him or then again “Maybe to survive in Hong Kong, being mean is a basic necessity”. “Conning people diligently in Hong Kong is the path to success”, according to his friend even as they ironically prepare to open their “authentic” haunted house where encounters with “real” ghosts quickly find an audience who believe screaming in supernatural terror has therapeutic effects that can ease the depression and anxiety they feel as young people in contemporary Hong Kong. 

Pierre sells the haunted house idea partly on the strength that no one makes horror movies anymore because, famously, you can’t sell them on the Mainland and so co-productions aren’t interested. He describes Gary as the “tumour that’s killing the Hong Kong film industry” while constantly talking a big game, like a stereotypical producer willing to say everything and everything in order to get ahead, even hobnobbing with triads. “Hong Kong Cinema is all about discipline” he ironically claims despite being massively behind on all his projects, giving Gary a dressing down for being a few days late with his designs. 

“Some things don’t need to be completely understood” a zany medium claims, somewhat duplicitously, but it’s not until their own encounter with the ghost that the gang start to pick up on the dark legacy of the studio fire making use, possibly, of an unfair prejudice against clowns to sell the idea of a madman killer driven insane by lust and resentment towards a woman who had rejected him. What they discover is a sad tale of frustrated love, wounded male ego, and bitter regret that has perhaps manifested itself as a deeply held grudge as the guilty party holds on to their guilt and shame despite themselves. “It’s never too late to turn back” the villain is cautioned by a now elderly shaman, but in some ways it is, especially if you’ve already donned the clown suit of vicarious violence, “all debts must be paid”.  

Making the most of its whimsical premise, the increasingly surreal tale doesn’t skimp on the horror imagery with its scarred ghosts and scary clowns but also harks back to the horror comedies of old with its sutras and seals as the gang attempt to solve the mystery and right a historical injustice. Filled with amusing meta references to the contemporary Hong Kong film industry, ironic satire, and absurdist gags Lau’s charmingly off the wall comedy has only sympathy for its lovelorn ghosts of a bygone era and the hapless film crew attempting to navigate the vagaries of an often absurd industry.


Sugar Street Studio streams worldwide until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love Off the Cuff (春嬌救志明, Pang Ho-cheung, 2017)

love off the cuff posterJimmy and Cherie, against all the odds, are still together and in a happy longterm relationship in the third addition to Pang Ho-cheung’s series of charming romantic comedies, Love off the Cuff (春嬌救志明). Following the dramatic declaration at the end of Love in the Buff, the pair have continued to grow into each other embracing each of their respective faults but after all this time Jimmy and Cherie have to make another decision – stay together forever or call it quits for good.

The major drama this time around occurs with the looming spectre of parenthood as Cherie’s long absent father and Jimmy’s “godmother” suddenly arrive to place undue strain on the couple’s relationship. These unexpected twin arrivals do their best to push Cherie’s buttons as she’s forced to re-examine her father’s part in her life (or lack of it) and how he may or may not be reflected in her choice of Jimmy, whilst Jimmy’s Canadian “godmother” makes a request of him in that he be the father of her child. Jimmy, a self confessed child himself, does not want anything to with this request but is too cowardly to hurt the feelings of a childhood friend and is hoping Cherie will do it for him. Cherie is wise to his game and doesn’t want to be trotted out as his old battle axe of a spouse but at 40 years of age children is one of the things she needs to make a decision on, another being whether she wants them with Jimmy.

Cherie’s father was an unhappy womaniser who eventually abandoned the family and has had little to do with any of them ever since. In his sudden return he brings great news! He’s getting married, to a woman much younger than Cherie. Building on the extreme insecurities and trust issues Cherie has displayed throughout the series, her faith in Jimmy crumbles especially after she intercepts some interestingly worded (yet totally innocent) text messages on his phone which turn out to relate to an unfortunate incident with their dog. Jimmy’s reliability continues to be one of his weaker elements as the behaviour he sees as pragmatic often strikes Cherie as self-centered or insensitive. Things come to a head during a disastrous getaway to Taipei in which the couple are caught in an earthquake. Cherie freezes and cowers by the door while Jimmy ties to guide her to safety but his efforts leave her feeling as if he will never value anything more than he does himself.

Moving away from the gentle whimsy of Love in a Puff, Cuff veers towards the surreal as the pair end up in ever stranger, yet familiar, adventures including a UFO spotting session which goes horribly wrong landing them with community service and accidental internet fame. A real life alien encounter becomes the catalyst for the couple’s eventual romantic destiny as does another of Jimmy’s grand gestures enlisting the efforts of Cherie’s father to help him win back his true love. Cherie’s troupe of loyal girlfriends even indulge in some top quality song and dance moves in an effort to cheer her up when it’s looking like she’s hit rock bottom though, improbably enough, it’s Yatterman who eventually saves the day.

Supporting cast is less disparate this time around relying heavily on Cherie’s dad and Jimmy’s godmother but Cherie’s friends get their fare share of screentime even if Jimmy’s seem to fade into the background. Cherie never seems to notice but one of her friends is in love with her and is not invested in her relationship with Jimmy, constantly trying to get her to come away on vacation to a nostalgic childhood destination, but most of the girls seem to be in the dump camp anyhow loyally making sure Cherie thinks as little about Jimmy as is possible lest she eventually go back to him.

Trolling the audience once again with the lengthiest of his horror movie openings (so long you might wonder if you’ve wandered into the wrong screen), Pang begins as he means to go on, mixing whimsical everyday moments of hilarity with surreal set pieces. It’s clear both Jimmy and Cherie have grown throughout the series – no longer does Jimmy skip out on family dinners with Cherie’s mother and brother but patiently helps his (future?) mother-in-law figure out her smartphone as well as becoming something like her errant father’s wingman. Things wrap up in the predictable fashion but it does leave us primed for the inevitable sequel – Love up the Duff? Could be, it’s the next logical step after all.


Love off the Cuff was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Love in a Puff (志明與春嬌, Pang Ho-cheung, 2010)

love in a puffSmokers. Is there a more maligned, ostracised group in the modern world? Considering the rapid pace at which their “harmless” pastime has become unacceptable, you can understand why they might feel particularly put out – literally, as they find themselves taking refuge in designated smoking areas or perhaps back allies where it seems no one’s looking. For all the nostalgia about how easy it was to strike up a friendship with a stranger just by asking for a light, it is also important to remember that smoking is not so “harmless” after all and there are reasons why smokers are asked to keep their activities amongst those who’ve also decided to ignore the warnings. The Smoking Ordinance, oddly enough, may have accidentally boosted the social potential of a smoke as those eager for a puff are given additional reasons to spend time together in an enclosed space, building a sense of community through nicotine addiction.

Pang Ho-cheung’s landmark romantic comedy Love in a Puff (志明與春嬌) takes this idea to its natural conclusion as recently dumped ad exec Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and trapped in a going nowhere relationship cosmetics girl Cherie (Miriam Yeung) begin to bond over a cigarette or two taken in a back ally near Jimmy’s office. Actually, Cherie doesn’t event work here, she’s wandered over and found a collection of kindred spirits whilst trying to avoid being spotted by her boss who thinks smoking is bad for your skin (not great when you’re supposed to be a walking advert for the makeup you’re pushing). Whilst the other guys and girls gossip about Jimmy’s great failed romance – his girlfriend cheated on him with and then left him for a Frenchman who has a better job in the company, Cherie listens patiently even though she’s clearly outside of this tight social circle. For Jimmy, this might be just what he needs – a breath of fresh (well, differently perfumed) air that has almost nothing to do with his current circle of work based friends.

Nothing in particular happens but the pair grow closer as they both attempt to escape the less satisfying elements of their lives. Relying on text messages delivered in a mix of text speak English and Chinese, Jimmy and Cherie message each other when they get bored – he eating hot pot with colleagues, she trapped at a fancy dress karaoke party, getting together to waste time but each unwilling to consider what any of this means. Eventually Cherie decides to make a real decision, but predictably enough, Jimmy freaks out and jumps on the brakes only to realise his hasty reaction might have been mistaken.

The tone is light and playful as Pang trolls the audience by beginning as a horror movie complete with dripping blood credits and scary music. The sequence turns out to be just one of the silly stories they gang entertain each other with during their cigarette breaks – in fact this one is a staple of Indian pizza delivery boy Bitta who tells it every time a new girl shows up. The grisly opening sequence even makes a fun return as Jimmy uses it to prank Cherie bringing them closer together whilst also highlighting his boyish, irreverent character. These same qualities which help Jimmy get through to Cherie may also be among the reasons his previous girlfriend ended the relationship, becoming bored with his familiar antics such as his strange love of buying ice-cream in a convenience store solely for the dry ice which likes to put in the toilet to enjoy the incongruous smoke effects.

Laid-back in style, Pang allows the back and forth between the leads to take centre stage whilst peppering the edges with a collection of background details about their friends and social lives. Cutting to a series of direct to camera documentary-style interviews, Pang adds a layer of commentary about modern love and relationships which extends right into the end credits with a hopeful man’s strange story about a girlfriend’s dog, all of which has the ring of authenticity even if occasionally mean-spirited as in its mocking of a plain girl stood up by an online date deceived by her overly flattering profile picture.

Love comes creeping and Jimmy and Cherie dance around each other, unable to speak plainly but occasionally moving forward through grand gestures. Each assuring the other they’re “in no hurry”, the great gateway to future happiness appears not with the traditional declaration of love but the “simple and straightforward” “I miss you”. Surprisingly cute and innocent for a Cat III comedy, Love in a Puff is an inconsequential tale of love blossoming in smokey city backstreets between a girl who’s tired of waiting and a guy who doesn’t know where he’s going but together they might just be able to figure it all out.


Love in a Puff was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)