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Happy Birthday
     

(left) Rene Liu, and (right) Louis Koo in Happy Birthday.
Chinese: 生日快樂
Year: 2006
Director: Jingle Ma Chor-Sing
Producer: Eric Tsang Chi-Wai
Writer: Sylvia Chang, Mathias Woo, Theresa Tang, Rene Liu (original story)
Cast: Rene Liu, Louis Koo Tin-Lok, Richard Ng Yiu-Hon, Lawrence Chou Chun-Wai, Bowie Tsang Bo-Yi, Carl Ng Ka-Lung, Sonja Kwok Sin-Nei, Wei Wei, Li Qinqin, Yuya Kudo, Lam Suet, Macy Chan Mei-Si, Richie Ren
The Skinny: Gorgeous but lacking. Director Jingle Ma's romantic drama gets the surface details right - pretty stars and a heartrending situation - but the emotions seem more cursory than compelling. Very watchable, but not noteworthy.
 
Review
by Kozo:

You know the story. Two people fall in love, but let circumstance, insecurity, or just plain denial get in the way of a blessed happily ever after ending. If you didn't experience it, you've probably seen it, heard about it, or maybe glimpsed it in another film, drama, or pulpy romance novel. Jingle Ma's new film Happy Birthday possesses this tried-and-true plotline, but knocking the film for its lack of an original storyline would be wrong because it's something that really happens to people. People do let their most cherished relationships go without putting up a proper fight, and the consequences can frequently be heartbreaking, to both the would-be lovers and whoever happens to be watching. The same is true for Happy Birthday, which posits a storyline that should tug at the heartstrings of anyone who's had love then pushed it away. Thankfully - or maybe not - the filmmakers have eased our heartbreak by making the film less touching than it could have been. Though it delivers some potentially tearjerking plot twists, Happy Birthday is ultimately light and bittersweet, and not heavy and heartwrenching.

Mi is a single woman in her late twenties who's unattached despite the fact that she's a talented pianist and looks just like Rene Liu. Mi seems content with loneliness, except on her birthday, when her expectation of a message from her ex-boyfriend Nam (Louis Koo) lifts her spirits. Nam is married now, but once upon a time the two looked like they would be longtime partners. The film details their tender first beginnings in flashback, when the ultra-popular Nam ditched many potential girlfriends for the sometimes difficult Mi, who doubted their relationship, doubted her attractiveness, and frequently poo-pooed the idea that Nam would really go for her long-term. Nam responded by being inscrutably charming, and the two eventually became boyfriend-girlfriend. Circumstance and bad timing lead them to separate and finally become best friends, though that eventuality is partially due to self-defeating design. But the attraction is clearly always there, and Nam seems like he's going to stay strong and make Mi his one-and-only - that is, once she gets back from her schooling in Japan and he ditches his string of replacement girlfriends. But somewhere along the way, things went wrong and Nam got married. How, given his obvious ardent love for Mi, did that ever happen?

Good question. The big deal between Nam and Mi is their frustrating lack of disclosure, which is seen from Mi's side in her constant reticence, and her self-defeating tendency to push for a platonic relationship. The situation is recognizable and thus frustrating; how many of us have said, "Let's just be friends," only to mean the exact opposite? The film pushes these moments full force, as the couple's joy in togetherness gives way to the fear of commitment. But the movie itself is less affecting than it sounds. The film relates the couple's decade-long "will they or won't they" dance with affecting detail, but the characters' inability to express their love - the very emotional hook which gives the film complexity and audience identification - gives way to something else, namely a fourth quarter plot reveal that's more tired than touching. The plot revelation changes one character from an identifiable individual into a character type commonly seen in Asian Cinema romances. Frankly, they do this waaaaaay too often; the plot reveal is so common, a likely response could be, "What, again?"

Also, Nam and Mi are not really that likable, as both are inordinately selfish, choosing never to let go when doing so would actually spare some hurt. Of course, this detail feels completely real, as people are frequently this selfish and shortsighted, and will hold onto others without committing or cutting ties. The push and pull of Nam and Mi's relationship seems familiar, which is why it's ultimately easy to enjoy the film's slow, sometimes meandering journey. As Happy Birthday is essentially about not getting together, most of the drama is incidental or even mundane, such as potential (and sometimes pathetically ignored) romantic competition, cute hotpot dinners, and Nam's yearly "Happy Birthday" message. There's also tougher stuff - time spent apart, the death of a loved one - but the film ultimately feels manufactured, albeit in a cuddly, light manner. Yee Chung-Man's clean art direction and Jingle Ma's soft-focus cinematography give the film a beautiful and conspicuously manufactured sheen, and add to the light, even airy feel of the film. It all feels very attractive and pleasant, but it also feels cursory and superficial, like a bittersweet Hallmark Card that softens the situation by talking around it. There's a tough message somewhere in there, but you have to dig to get to it.

Still, the actors help matters, bringing their own individual strengths to the material. Louis Koo's ladykiller charm has never been more effective than here, though when Koo gets serious, his expressions still smack of obvious acting. Nam is secondary to Mi, however, which is fine because it allows for Rene Liu to take center stage. Liu carries the film exceptionally well, the right amount of emotion trickling through her character's insecurity and reserve. She makes Mi a real, believable person, though at one or two moments her character loses consistency, opting for showy screenwriting moments instead of realistic reactions. At one key moment, Mi loses her cool when leaving a message on someone's voicemail, and the moment feels false. Mi's steadfast and self-defeating protection of her own emotions should never waver. It's what defines her character, and having her break down on the phone seems like an excuse to give Rene Liu a teary monologue. The other, more nitpicky issue is that Liu and even Koo are clearly too old for these roles, especially when they're supposed to be college students. At least Lawrence Chou, who plays Nam's roommate and Mi's best pal, looks the part of a college kid.

Happy Birthday comes to a hackneyed close thanks to its clichéd ending, which was probably more affecting the first twenty times it was done. It's sad when a dramatic device starts to feel simply like a screenwriting shortcut, but that's what seems to happen here, and even though the device occurred in the original story, it still feels like a letdown on screen. It's getting so with Asian Cinema that we should start judging a film's merit IN SPITE of an overused cinema cliché - so hey, that's what we'll do here. Putting aside the last twenty minutes, Happy Birthday is engagingly bittersweet, with effective performances and a sometimes genuine-seeming heartbreak. It's also perfunctory, episodic, and far too cursory to be that affecting, resulting in what feels like an incomplete motion picture. The pointless Richie Ren cameo, where he shows up in the background as himself for no particular reason whatsoever, seals the deal on this too-commercial romance. Happy Birthday isn't really one to remember, and indeed it's a whole lot less than it should be. However, it occasionally conjures up enough familiar emotion to warrant a sad, and even sweet nod of approval. (Kozo 2007)

 

Availability:

DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese subtitles

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