|On paper, Temporary Family boasts one of the year’s most intriguing pedigrees This urban romantic comedy features current Box Office King Nick Cheung, former Box Office Queen Sammi Cheng, perennial ingénue Angelababy and a script loaded with topical references about Hong Kong’s out-of-control real estate market. The X-Factor is writer-director Vincci Cheuk a.k.a. GC Goo Bi, the DJ, entertainment personality and writer-director who showed initial promise in her segment of 2001 anthology Heroes in Love and also co-wrote Pang Ho-Cheung’s vastly underrated Exodus. Unfortunately, Cheuk was also responsible for one of 2013’s absolute worst films, the ill-conceived female fighting comedy Kick Ass Girls. The bar has been set tremendously low for Temporary Family, and thankfully the film rises well above those expectations. Despite showing continued limitations as a filmmaker, Cheuk delivers a perfectly watchable commercial comedy that’s better than most Hong Kong films released this year.
While many recent films have referenced hot-button Hong Kong social issues, Temporary Family uses them as more than superficial talking points and effectively weaves them into its narrative. Lung (Nick Cheung) is a realtor who needs to purchase a 1000 square-foot flat in order to convince his girlfriend, flight attendant Julie (Myolie Wu), to marry him. His work is cut out for him, since she’s only given him a year to raise the money – that is, until he has the brilliant idea of hardcore flat speculation. When a client needs to get rid of a dazzling luxury flat on the Peak, Lung decides to purchase the property with the intention of flipping it a year later for the extra cash. He doesn’t have enough money, but he convinces his stepdaughter Hak (Angelababy) and mainland colleague Very Wong (Oho) to partner with him on the investment. The last partner is a stranger, recently divorced Charlotte (Sammi Cheng), who’s looking for a new place but agrees to Lung’s scheme after she checks out the luxury flat and likes it.
However, Charlotte ends up liking the flat way too much and surreptitiously moves in. Lung disapproves of her squatting, but Hak and Very are also smitten by the flat, and decide to move in temporarily to experience its luxury. Lung follows them to make sure they don’t trash the place – since he’s simultaneously trying to sell it for profit – making the four the temporary family of the film’s title. Predictably there are conflicts with chances for affection and healing along the way. Focus moves from each character to the next efficiently, with some relationships solved quickly (Charlotte and Hak’s conflict ramps up quick and then solves itself in one scene), while others (like Lung and Charlotte’s burgeoning attraction) take the whole film to gestate. One storyline that’s laughably a fait accompli is the obligatory romance between Hak and Very Wong, which develops nearly invisibly. The performers are likable though; as Very Wong, Oho has agreeable energy, and Angelababy shows some surprising comic chops. Smaller appearances by the likes of Jacky Cheung, Dayo Wong and Ivana Wong (no relation) spice up the mix.
Nick Cheung and Sammi Cheng are where it’s at, though. The two actors represent a fresh Hong Kong Cinema pairing, and are engaging as they stumble towards a relatively mature romance. Cheng’s talent for physical emotion is as sharp as ever, though her acting nukes the fridge when director Cheuk gives her too much room. Cheng has a couple of lengthy award bait scenes that start strong but overstay their welcome. Still, she’s largely solid in the role, and when he can get a word in, Nick Cheung makes a fine complement to Cheng. Lung is sometimes uncouth and even pathetic, but he’s got a decent heart and Cheung ultimately makes him likable. The Cheng + Cheung pairing is a very welcome one, and it helps that their romance isn’t drawn out or too gimmicky. Where other films might use big speeches and a sprint to the airport, Temporary Family offers mutual acceptance. Such a mundane romantic reward is somewhat refreshing.
When it’s called upon to be funny, Temporary Family hits more often than it misses. The local satire can be scathing – when convincing wannabe-Hong Konger Very Wong to invest in the luxury flat, Lung tells him, “Speculate on property. This is HK lifestyle!” There’s lowbrow stuff too, including an extended gag about pubic hair with a funny payoff. However, some jokes are tired if not complete lifts (one sight gag involving a condom was stolen from Blake Edwards), and the pace sometimes drags. Director Cheuk switches from comedy to drama erratically, and can’t find a proper rhythm. On the plus side, her situations build to rewarding finishes. This may be a movie about real issues, but the characters are movie types, in that they rousingly choose decency and camaraderie over pragmatism and selfishness. The ending is eye-rolling, however, with a Chinese national arriving in Hong Kong to magically fix, well, everything. Let’s coin a phrase now and call this type of plot device a deus ex mainland.
Then again, we’re in the age of the co-production, and as such, it’s become increasingly harder to knock every film for pandering to the north. Given that Temporary Family isn’t a pretentious message movie or a self-absorbed anthem for some demographic’s “feels”, it’s perfectly fine to give Vincci Cheuk a thumbs up and some goodwill after the Kick Ass Girls mess. Also, Hong Kong Cinema in 2014 has been pretty bad overall – Golden Chickensss is actually Top 5 material at this point – and with the sliding scale in place, Temporary Family ranks as one of the better films of the year. It’s still kind of early (only August), so if enough quality stuff drops between now the New Year (Johnnie To, Ann Hui and Tsui Hark are all on deck), maybe we can push Temporary Family out of the Top 10. Hell, I hope we can push it out of the Top 10. If it stays, though, I won’t complain.