A sequel is often a commercial decision that occurs when it’s financially viable to repeat the formula of the original film – thus, Love in the Buff was from its very conception Pang Ho-Cheung’s most commercial project. One can’t blame Pang for bringing his Love in a Puff characters back for the first sequel of his career; the writer-director has gained a following in Mainland China thanks to his films as well as his social media exposure. What better way to get further legitimacy in China than with a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy? Fortunately, Love in the Buff is not a complete commercial sellout. It’s a romantic comedy that also reflects the economic realities of Hong Kong filmmakers and Hong Kongers in general. Essentially, it does what Andrew Lau’s A Beautiful Life failed to do: briefly address the plight of Hong Kongers in China while telling a believable love story.
At once an extended epilogue and a continuation of Love in a Puff, Love in the Buff begins by shattering the first film’s “happily ever after” ending. Six months into the relationship between advertising man Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and cosmetics shop girl Cherie (Miriam Yeung), the two are living together. However, their honeymoon period is just about over, as Jimmy puts work over his commitments to Cherie, and even places her second to a job offer in Beijing from a former boss (Jim Chim). Cherie and Jimmy soon break up, and Jimmy takes off to Beijing for a new life.
Months later, Cherie herself is sent to the Chinese capital when her company decides to withdraw from the Hong Kong market. Cherie and Jimmy eventually run into each other but any chance of reconciliation is quashed when Cherie finds Jimmy already shacked up with flight attendant You You (Mini Yang). By any measure, Cherie is at a disadvantage: You You is younger, prettier and not the type of woman any man would leave for someone like Cherie (more on that later). On her end, Cherie finds a new romance with rich electrical engineer/Best Man Ever™ Sam (Xu Zheng). However, neither Jimmy nor Cherie can let go of their past.
This being Pang Ho-Cheung's first Hong Kong-Mainland China co-production, one might wonder whether Hong Kong cinema’s new bad boy has been sanitized by the powers that be, and the answer to that is “yes” with a “but.” Love in the Buff still contains much of the crude verbal humor that made Cantonese speakers giggle with delight the first time around, but Miriam Yeung's clean pop star image once again prevents her from using any offensive language or sharing any kisses with her male co-stars. SARFT also appears to have a subtle influence over the film’s content, as sex – a major catalyst in the story - remains only implied and never explicitly or seriously discussed.
Fortunately, SARFT’s meddling is only a mild distraction, as Pang is more concerned with the film’s romance. If Love in a Puff was a light take on how urban relationships begin, then Love in the Buff is a cautionary tale about how complicated they can get. Pang and co-writer Luk Yee-Sum deal with far more complex emotions in this installment, as the characters are no longer just smoking in alleyways and taking strolls around the city. This time, Jimmy and Cherie face life-changing decisions and difficult dilemmas with no easy way out.
The underlying message of Love in the Buff is that there are no simple choices in relationships, but you have to make them anyway and bear the consequences. Jimmy and Cherie may truly love one another, but Pang also makes it clear that love and sentimentality for the good old days cannot sustain a solid relationship. While toilet humor and foul language are still present, the fact that Pang can depict a believable adult relationship with all its complications makes Love in the Buff the filmmaker’s most mature work yet.
However, audiences who liked the playful nature of Love in a Puff may find the sequel too heavy for their tastes. Pang bites off more than he can chew with the Beijing element, juggling cultural tourism, the Cherie-Jimmy relationship, plus You You and Sam all at the same time. Potentially interesting topics are missing; Pang doesn’t devote much time to culture clash and culture shock, and Jimmy and Cherie are already fluent in Mandarin for unknown reasons. While it’s true that such issues don’t have to be dealt with in a light romantic comedy, it seems particularly important here considering that the characters' respective careers played such a huge part in getting them to Beijing in the first place.
That bit of criticism does come with an asterisk, as savvy audiences may read that You You and Cherie actually represent Mainland China and Hong Kong in the eyes of a Hong Konger. It's true that You You (or China) is a more attractive choice that would make Jimmy’s situation into any heterosexual man’s fantasy, but Jimmy also has a sense of attachment and sentimentality towards Cherie (or Hong Kong) that's nearly impossible to shake. Pang is a smart filmmaker, and it wouldn't surprise if that allegory is indeed his way of dealing with his own internal struggle following his move up north.
Love in the Buff is the director's most commercial film in other ways besides being a sequel; not only does Pang bring back lines of dialogue from the first film as fan service, he intentionally verbalizes his characters' epiphanies with monologues. This narrative device allows Pang to measure the success of his film with the China audience, as Mainland fans like to quote their favorite lines on social media sites to express how much it resonates with them. The script's heavy reliance on dialogue is fine for a typical romcom audience, but it may prove distracting for those who know Pang as a director who has never relied on narrative shortcuts. Thank goodness he hasn't resorted to using voice-overs.
Pang serves more than the China audience, and smartly employs enough Hong Kong pop culture humor to satisfy the home crowd. In addition to the return of Cantonese foul language (downgraded here to a teen-friendly category IIB), Love in the Buff features multiple pop culture references (including one involving some guy named Ekin Cheng) that Hong Kongers will instantly recognize. Succeeding where many Hong Kong directors have failed, Pang Ho-Cheung has created a film that can satisfy both Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese audiences. The film will undoubtedly find even more fans than its predecessor, as all the elements are in place to make this Pang's most satisfying film.
The film’s biggest problem is that it’s not as good as it could have been. Dealing with complex themes and characters, Buff is actually Pang’s most ambitious film to date, but he fails to realize that potential. Pang seems content with letting his film remain a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, only addressing weightier issues in a sly and roundabout way that only its creator will truly understand. Nevertheless, it’s almost guaranteed that Love in the Buff will be recognized as one of the best Hong Kong films of 2012 and Pang Ho-Cheung's most popular film for years to come. It has taken ten years for Pang to get real commercial recognition (Men Suddenly in Black is Pang’s only bonafide hit), and there are far worse ways to achieve that than with a smart, funny romantic comedy like Love in the Buff. (Kevin Ma, 2012)