When Hong Kong saw a wide-ranging indoor and public-places smoking ban put into effect and later had its tobacco tax shoot up, film director Pang Ho-cheung seized on the scenario’s silver-screen potential. Filming quickly and pushing the resulting Love in a Puff to cinemas soon afterwards in early 2010, Pang delivered breezy and unexpected romantic comedy built up from two smokers’ alleyway cigarette breaks and their evening escapades.
Shop assistant Cherie Yu (Miriam Yeung) and young ad exec Jimmy Cheung (Shawn Yue) make their first introductions as they join those who’ve been sent into the streets for their smoke breaks. Hanging around litterbin ashtrays, groups from different workplaces strike up easy conversation, engage in gossip and, in Cherie and Jimmy’s case, take first steps towards a romance. The pairing isn’t so straightforward, however: Cherie is in a rocky relationship with her current boyfriend, and Jimmy is on the mend after his lover found a new man just days earlier.
With its narrative spanning barely a week, Love in a Puff’s focus is squarely on the beginnings of Cherie and Jimmy’s love story, with the new partners crossing paths, text-messaging and forming bonds in the wired-up city. The script by Pang and writer-director Heiward Mak emphasises spirited small talk, dispenses with Hong Kong cinema’s aversion to foul language (which usually results in an undesirable adults-only rating), and pushes streetwise Cantonese humour to the fore — the latter a refreshing change amid high-budget Hong Kong pictures gunning for mainland China success. Complementing the script’s informal flow is loose, even dreamy cinematography from Jason Kwan, chatty interview snippets about the characters and their back stories, and a catchy score by Alan Wong and Janet Yung that gently ebbs and flows as the story progresses.
When Love in a Puff hit cinemas, local critics and cineastes swooned over the film’s style, some citing a French New Wave flavour, and audiences warmed to the freshness of the script (which picked up Best Screenplay at the Hong Kong Film Awards). Compelling delivery from the cast added to the appeal, too. In recent years Miriam Yeung has moved into classy everywoman roles in a smooth transfer from her early, rough-edged comic work, and in Love in a Puff her role is natural, mature and affecting. Yeung’s onscreen rapport with Yue comes across as fresh and involving, and Pang’s low-key direction ensures a sense of realism. His light directorial touch gives the side players a lift too, their alleyway banter coming across so casually that viewers can be forgiven for thinking much of the film is ad libbed. Fans of Love in a Puff fortunately didn’t need to wait too long to see more from this team of filmmakers: in 2011 the flashier sequel Love in the Buff went into production, with the romance action this time taking a journey north to Beijing.