|Pang Ho-Cheung returns for a second bite of the mainland market apple with Women Who Flirt, a romantic comedy based on the best-selling relationship guide “Everyone Loves Tender Women” by a former Taiwanese journalist writing under the pseudonym Luo Fu-Man (a Chinese homonym for Loverman). Zhou Xun stars as Angie, a woman caught in a “words speak louder than actions” situation. Angie fell in love with Marco (Huang Xiaoming) back when they were in college and in the years since has done much and made many sacrifices for him. She gave up an interest in sculpture to take a corporate job in Shanghai so she could be close to Marco and helps him buy birthday gifts for his father. Angie also looks out for Marco at work, talking him up to their boss Michael (Fu Chuanjie) and arranging for opportunities to get him promoted. The only thing Angie hasn’t done is actually declare her love to Marco. She hasn’t because, as she puts it, “I am a girl, after all”. Instead, Angie soldiers on in the hope that Marco will one day realize her feelings.
Alas, Marco is a lunkhead and only thinks of the tomboyish Angie as a hing dai (brother) and not a love interest. The old college classmates are stuck in a friend-zone stasis, reeling in the years and stowing away the time. The friendship equilibrium is upset when Marco announces to Angie that he met a girl while on a recent business trip to Taiwan. Hailey (Sonia Sui) is everything that Angie is not. While Angie is a reserved, straightforward, feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground type, Hailey is coquettish, manipulative and unafraid to the make the most of her considerable charms. Devastated by the news, Angie seeks solace in her friend May (Evonne Hsieh). A master in the use of feminine wiles, May is able to see through Hailey’s antics and urges Angie not to give up. She enlists the “Barbie Army” (a group of four women with the best flirt game in Shanghai) to coach Angie up and fight fire with fire. Will Angie be able to take Hailey down and win Marco’s heart?
An unabashed commercial romcom, Women Who Flirt offers little doubt that Angie and Marco will end up together, so the journey they take is more important than the destination. Bringing in the film at 96 minutes, Pang Ho-Cheung keeps a brisk pace, moving efficiently from scene to scene and comedic situation to comedic situation, while occasionally interjecting flashbacks to Marco and Angie’s college days. He directs with his usual aplomb (Pang gives residential Shanghai the same crisp and tony look he gave Hong Kong in Love In A Puff and Aberdeen) and flourish (the key showdown between Angie and Hailey is underscored by the same musical track, “The Ecstasy of Gold”, as the climactic showdown in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). The quick pace is a necessity because slowing down would reveal that the story is as thin as a model in a slimming ad, and that the characters, apart from Zhou Xun’s Angie, have little to no depth. In a flash, the movie is over, Marco and Angie are together, presumably living happily ever after. Pang even adds an adorable mid-end credits coda to escort viewers out of the theatre with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Quick and tidy, as the Welsh would say.
A charming performance from Zhou Xun also helps paper over the cracks in the film. Zhou has arguably never looked better onscreen, and Angie’s plight gives Zhou a chance to display the full spectrum of her acting rainbow. From defiance and disgust at Hailey’s shenanigans to competence and confidence in the workplace to vulnerability at the prospect of losing her true love, Zhou makes it easy for viewers to become invested in Angie. Women Who Flirt likely would not be as effective in the hands of another lead actress. Strong supporting performances from Evonne Hsieh and Sonia Sui help as well. Hsieh stands out as Angie’s saucy friend May while Sui’s sexiness is perfectly suited for the role of Angie’s romantic rival. Reduced for the majority of the film to straight man status, Huang Xiaoming plays well off of Zhou Xun and Sonia Sui.
With its quick laughs and sweet romance, Women Who Flirt should easily satisfy those with an undiscerning eye. To more discerning eyes, the lightweight story and featherweight characters give more than enough cause to dismiss the film. Those with progressive sensibilities will certainly find the portrayal of women in the movie troubling. Women are shown to be master manipulators who bend men to their will by strategically batting an eye or bamboozling them with flirtatious baby talk. The reason Hailey gives Angie for fighting with her over Marco is incredibly juvenile. It’s the motivation of an immature 13 year-old middle school girl, not the motivation of a grown woman. Moreover, the briefcase models from Deal or No Deal had more personality and were more distinguishable with their numbered briefcases than the Barbie Army of Jiajia (Choenyi Tsering), Nana (Yang Kaidi), Guagua (Li Fangding) and Yaya (Ni Musi). There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence in Women Who Flirt to build an argument that Pang Ho-Cheung is guilty of misogyny.
However, it’s important to look at intent. As twenty seasons of Law & Order has taught, actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea (the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty). With its quick pace, thin story and even thinner characters, it’s clear that the only intention here is to tell a specific story about a specific set of characters set in a specific environment. There is no attempt to say anything greater about society at large. In fact, Women Who Flirt takes a more optimistic, less dim view of society than the relationship guide book on which it‘s based. The film’s resolution actually rejects the book’s view that a relationship is like a cup of coffee and flirting is like sugar. According to the book, whether or not a woman will have a good relationship rests entirely on her ability to flirt; not enough flirting will lead to a bitter relationship, while too much would be nauseating.
Instead, Women Who Flirt shows relationships work more like chemical bonds. Two atoms become attracted to each other and form a stable molecule because the set of qualities and behaviors of the two atoms are compatible. They are, as Newton put it, “glued together by rest”. By contrast, keeping a relationship together by constantly measuring the level of flirting sounds exhausting. Relationship philosophies and gender politics aside, Women Who Flirt will have most viewers leaving the theater with a smile on their face and warmth in the heart. In the end, isn’t that what going to the movies is all about? (Sanney Leung, 12/2014)