Seen at the film’s UK premiere at the 2013 Terracotta Film Festival.
Independent productions are not something you come by every day in the world of Hong Kong cinema of blockbuster action and crime thriller film fame, so every time a new indie does roll around, it seems like something better not missed. That said, it was not the indie label that first stirred my interest in Bùnéng ài, but the themes it deals with: it is a story of two friends, Dennis (Cheng Kenneth) and Aggie (Lee Afa), both gay and friends since childhood days, who decide to move into together for the sake of convenience, in part to mislead their own parents (an idea is however barely explored in the film).
It is a starting point full of potential to explore issues sensitive and/or still taboo in conservative Asian society, but Bùnéng ài unfortunately turns out to be unclear about its direction. Leung opts for rather fragmented storytelling and experimental cinematographic shots in the opening scenes, meaning it takes a while to figure out what is actually going on. The disorienting beginning would be forgivable, but just as we have managed to get our bearings, the film throws in another twist which made me wonder we were perhaps watching the wrong screener: the first half of the story, it (eventually) transpires, is a film within the film, as we then get to meet the real Dennis (Wu Siu) and the real Aggie (Yip Rebecca), played by completely different actors. While there are connections between Dennis 1 / Dennis 2 and Aggie 1 / Aggie 2, it is still harsh break, amplified by fragmentary presence of secondary characters who appear one moment and inexplicably vanish the next. It is, consequently, difficult to really relate to any individual (main or secondary), let alone care about their worries and struggles. The narrative meanderings also make rather little sense. Particularly Aggie’s intense flirting with an actress (Hitomi Thompson, whose heavily accented Japanese is highly distracting) doesn’t quite add up when she has a – though not quite sudden, but certainly peculiar – 180º change in her object of affection.
Some explanations were offered during the Q&A session with the director, but did little to alleviate the shortcomings. Leung revealed that the original actors became unavailable half-way through the shoot (a dilemma resulting from the lack-of-funding that often hampers independent projects), which was eventually resolved with the film-within-the-film idea. And this is exactly what it feels like: like a late and somewhat awkward addition, rather than a carefully planned, smoothly integrated insertion into the script. The director also clarified that she did not wish to put people into too neat boxes or attach too restrictive labels. While that aim is certainly noble, its cinematic realisation however fails to compel, including with the film’s final pairing.
Overall verdict: While the basic idea behind Bùnéng ài is full of potential, the film offers a patchwork storyline that is not only confusing but also makes it difficult to sympathise with any of the characters, leaving us with a story that feels rather hollow.