|Break Up Club has some good stuff and some bad stuff – and deciding which stuff matters more may simply depend on who you are. The latest from filmmaker Barbara Wong Chun-Chun, Break Up Club features fine performances and some honest observations on young, post-adolescent love. Then the filmmakers proceed to hose all that goodwill beneath a framing device that strains credibility and flirts with self-absorption. Those looking for an honest and incisive look at Hong Kong relationships will find much to like about Break Up Club. Those looking for something a little more accomplished…well, you may wish to keep looking.
Rumored real-life lovers Jaycee Chan and Fiona Sit star in Break Up Club. Chan is Joe, a go-nowhere dope who's determined to win back his ex-girlfriend Flora (Sit). To do so, he uses the film's deux ex machina, an online website called “Break Up Club”, which can only be accessed at sandwich-and-coffee shilling O Café. The website asks a person to enter the name of a loving couple that you'd like to break up in exchange for getting your ex back, and Joe is game to submarine more than one couple in order to win back Flora's love. And why not? She's attractive and fun, if not mercurial and demanding – hey, just like all Hong Kong girls are supposed to be! Immediately, an apology must be given to all Hong Kong girls. We're sure some of you are genuinely sweet and caring.
Watching Joe and Flora is involving, because it does accurately portray the highs, lows, and aggravating minutiae that make up the Hong Kong dating scene. Joe and Flora's turbulent love is both charming and alarming – the two snuggle, snipe and sleep together with a refreshing honesty not seen in most Hong Kong films. When your industry is overrun with micro-managed idols, it's great to see two actors who'll actually portray the physical and not just verbal closeness abundant in real life love. Both Chan and Sit are very good in their roles, with Sit getting the edge because her character comes off as more consistent and credible than Chan's. Joe is portrayed in many ways like your standard Hong Kong guy, but his flip-flopping attitude towards his beloved make him seem more unbalanced than immature.
Getting a better look at Joe's emotions and psyche would actually make the film a whole lot better, but Wong doesn't really do that. Instead, we get a much more complete portrait of Flora, such that her mistakes and emotional outbursts actually create some sympathy. That key, however, is "some", as both characters are still too self-involved to make them compelling to all audiences, especially those who aren't of the same Hong Kong demographic. Break Up Club is most definitely a local Hong Kong film, in that it recognizably portrays the lives of the current brand-name chasing, PSP-playing generation. However, if one were to look super close, you'd think that Hong Kong kids would actually be upset because, well, it makes them look pretty bad. This is an honest film, but a flattering one? Not really.
Then again, Wong doesn't even flatter herself, even though she's very nearly the film's third or fourth-billed star. Break Up Club is framed by a plot device involving filmmaker Barbara Wong (played by Wong, natch), who's looking for real stories of Hong Kong youth, and offers Joe an HD cam with which to record his pursuit of Flora. The plot device makes for some effective hand-held camerawork, plus a few contrite "talk to the camera" moments. However, it also allows for a final twist that essentially has Wong depict herself and producers Gus Liew and Lawrence Cheng as less-than-ethical filmmakers. One wonders if there isn't some satire in there, but Break Up Club seems to be aiming for self-proclaimed meaning rather than subversive smarts. The film hands out way too many pats on the back in self-spoken exposition, and irony is not really in the offing
What's the film trying to do then? Perhaps please audiences and earn acclaim – a desire the film all but announces when producer Gus Liew says onscreen, "I think people are really going to love this film." They're somewhat correct; Hong Kong youth have cottoned to Wong's cynical but sweet view of young love, such that Break Up Club has earned hit status. The film does possess some genuinely good moments between all the manufactured, wannabe clever stuff. The problem: the manufactured, wannabe clever stuff is largely overbearing, with obvious product placement, intolerable side characters (Patrick Tang, as Joe's buddy Sunny, is already the frontrunner for this year's "Most Annoying" award) and a protracted ending that closes a few plot holes and opens up scores more. In trying too hard to make a representative film about Hong Kong youth, Barbara Wong compromises what could have been a smart, simple relationship film. A note to filmmakers everywhere: sometimes less really is more.