Hong Kong maverick Pang Ho-cheung’s relationship with mainland China edges closer to a long-term commitment with Women Who Flirt, a slight romantic-comedy which largely squanders the considerable talents of leading lady Zhou Xun on material that would have benefited from a rewrite or two.
The will they/won’t they pairing here is Angie (Zhou) and Marco (Huang Xiaoming) who have been best friends since their university days. Angie once had dreams of becoming a sculptor, but put her artistic ambitions on hold to be close to Marco, for whom she has always harbored romantic feelings. Since graduating, they have become colleagues at an efficiency consultancy in Shanghai and Angie is infuriated when Marco returns from a business trip to Taipei to announce that he is in a relationship with Hailey (Tang Sui), whom he met on the airport bus service. The kind of passive-aggressive manipulative cutie who frequently talks in a babyish voice, Hailey is the opposite of the practical, straight-talking Angie, who Marco sees as being more like a guy in terms of her personality. Seeking to wrestle the object of her unspoken affection away from the Taiwanese interloper, Angie enlists the help of her fashionable best friend May (Sie Yi-Lin) to teach her how to beat Hailey at her own game: May calls in her “Barbie Squad” to teach Angie the art of seduction, a series of lessons that range from how to take the perfect selfie to purring “I hate you” in an irresistible manner.
Working from the self-help book Everyone Loves Tender Women by Luo Fuman (a transliteration of “Loverman”), Pang and his co-writer Luk Yee-sum set out to lightly satirize gender stereotypes while also poking fun at a mainland China dating culture that, like almost any other, increasingly revolves around social media. Their point seems to be that women always have the upper hand in relationships through tried-and-tested emotional trickery. However, this often makes Women Who Flirt feel like a dated farce that is straining for topicality through its abundant texting and Marco’s worries that Hailey will get the wrong idea if Angie posts anything about him on her Weibo account. Running through a checklist of power plays means that potentially interesting elements are neglected. Angie and Marco’s working relationship is nicely established in the opening scene in which they pose as diners at high-end restaurants to see how long it will take for the staff to respond to drink spillages. This potentially sets the stage for a series of flirtatious role plays, but Pang soon sidelines the professional to focus entirely on the personal, meaning that the proceedings fall into familiar territory.
Pang’s comedic instincts are more miss than hit. Aside from the montages of Angie’s crash course in coquettish charm, there’s a meta-joke about The Guillotines (2012), which also starred Huang, the use of spaghetti Western music when Angie and Hailey circle one another, and a Ghost (1990) reference that only pays off in the end credits, by which point it plays like an out-take that probably should have remained on the cutting room floor. All of this is typical of the humor found in the director’s Hong Kong output, yet such playfulness seems awkward in comparatively mainstream context as Pang struggles to negotiate the film’s identity. Pang may have been trying to subvert the rom-com model that has become a multiplex staple in China but, after a hilarious exchange about pornography in the opening scene, has to mostly settle for mild innuendo and even resorts to a horrible “retard” joke in the second half.
Where the film does stand out from the crowd is in Pang’s roving camera which injects much-needed energy into a visually flat genre that often seems to exist merely as an excuse to fit as many luxury accessories into the frame as possible. Shanghai is a bright and appealing backdrop that never becomes overly touristic and Pang eventually heads over to the less affluent side of the city when Marco visits his father to receive some words of romantic wisdom.
Usually seen in heavier fare, Zhou is fine in the unlucky in love career girl role recently monopolized by Bai Baihe. While it’s initially odd to have such a beautiful woman being described as a “dude” by her male co-star – at least in the English subtitles – Zhou deftly shows Angie’s introverted nature and uses her trademark husky voice to comedic effect when trying to coo delicately. Huang makes for an agreeable romantic foil and occasional verbal sparring partner, although the underwritten backstory – covered by a few nostalgic flashbacks to their university studies – never quite justifies why Angie is so hung-up on him.
Women Who Flirt has all the froth of the cappuccinos that Angie and her confidantes sip in their favorite café, but really could have used more of an espresso kick if Pang had wanted his first fully-fledged mainland production to serve as anything more than a quick fix for China’s multiplex romantics.