This doesn’t happen as often anymore, but back in the early 2000s, Johnnie To would space out his highly stylized crime thrillers with crowd pleasing romantic comedies. In interviews, the Hong Kong filmmaker would often talk about how the commercial success of these comedies would help fund his more personal projects, those that most people recognize him for on the international stage. But statements like these should not perturb your expectations of these ‘less personal’ projects. They’re usually extremely well thought out, and together with collaborator Wai Ka-Fai, serve as commentaries on relevant societal issues. Add to the fact that they’re also exceptionally well made and you often have some of the best popcorn fare of the 21st century. Admittedly, I’m overhyping things a little here, but it’s hard not to get pumped when it comes to Johnnie To.
Love on a Diet was popular in Hong Kong for obvious reasons. Aside from being a Johnnie To movie, it put Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng (both of whom were at the peak of their acting/singing game) in fat suits. In terms of an American equivalent during that time period, imagine seeing Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in fat suits for a romantic comedy. Lau and Cheng were known to make these sorts of movies (unlike DiCaprio and Winslet) but it was still kind of a big deal. Still, coming off the success of their prior To romantic comedy, Needing You… (2000), the commercial viability of Love on a Diet was never a question.
Although I always knew that this was a film that would stand the test of time on a personal level, I didn’t think it would hold such a high tier of relevance 15 years on. Yet Love on a Diet speaks to the challenges and, more importantly, the value of perseverance; persevering against adversity and self-doubt because these are things that often holds us back in life. But the film also speaks to the difference between social and personal values. We not only tend to push through difficult situations with societal norms driving our primary motivations but much of what we perceive to be the norm is dictated by popular culture. This was true back in 2001 and it’s arguably even truer today.
In the film, Mini Mo (Cheng) character loses weight in the context of a culture that values a certain type of body image. Fatso (Lau) helps her achieve this goal not because he wants her to look this way, but because he is on a personal mission to make her happy. In the end, Mini is left feeling empty despite working so hard to achieve what she thought she wanted. Her primary motivation to get into shape is receiving external validation for her actions, and this is often a recipe for failure. On the other hand, Fatso is left physically battered as a result of covering the high cost of Mini’s weight-loss program by opening a street business that enables people to vent frustrations, yet never asks for more than personal validation.
Despite being a bittersweet ending (initially, anyways), you can tell that Fatso is generally happier than his female counterpart, and this is still a relevant message in the current culture of social media and endorsement of superficial success. The expectation that others need to know and comment on our everyday actions in order for them to attain meaning is worrisome. Back in 2001, social media wasn’t in play, but this idea of yearning for external validation certainly existed. It’s just become much worse today.
Love on a Diet criticises the culture of needing external validation in order to achieve personal happiness, and does so in a subtle way. I won’t say that it was ahead of its time, because this validation culture has always existed and the movie was simply commentating on reality at the time. But 15 years later, it’s a reminder that things have actually been pushed even further. This isn’t a plug to not use social media, it’s a plug to not let that formulate into your equation of happiness. And I know that this can be hard. As someone who only uses social media minimally, the sense of comparing yourself to others, and needing some form of acknowledgement in return, is hard to shake off. But you have to find a way. Revisiting a movie centered on two stars dressed in fat suits is a perfect reminder to do just that.
This review has been cross-posted at throwdown815.