HKIFF 2011: HI, FIDELITY Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor

As a mature, successful and supposedly independent woman, what would you do on discovering that your husband had been fooling around? If you're anything like Alice (Pat Ha), Jo Jo (Michelle Ye) or Pinky (Carrie Ng), you'll surrender to the timeless adage: "If you can't beat them, join them" and head over the border to Shenzhen for a little no-strings-attached pleasure of your own. Alice is a reserved, conservative and well-respected member of the community (some might even go so far as to say a little repressed), but when her husband is accidentally caught on camera cavorting with a much younger woman, her friends Jo Jo (the wife of a mid-level triad) and Pinky (who is struggling to raise a young son without her absent spouse), head north out of Hong Kong to the anonymity of China's affluent South, where they pay a visit to a high class brothel catering to sophisticated women such as themselves.

While there, the handsome young gigolo Bill (William Chan) catches Alice's eye, only to be snapped up by the more aggressive Pinky. Alice returns home unsatisfied and unable to shake the young stud from her mind, so ventures back to Shenzhen alone, determined to conquer her inhibitions and rekindle her long-dormant primal urges. Needless to say it is not long before Alice and Pinky find themselves at loggerheads for Bill's affections, while Jo Jo and Bill's motives are revealed to be not all they at first appeared.

At first glance, Calvin Poon's HI, FIDELITY might seem like Hong Kong's answer to SEX AND THE CITY, focusing as it does on a group of women struggling to come to terms with the onset of middle age and desperate to keep their sex lives alive. However, rather than descend into farce and repugnant product placement, Poon's film takes a far more dramatic course, giving a voice to the not uncommon frustrations of women who seemingly have it all, but are somehow unable to keep hold of their husbands. It appears that these women, as intelligent and successful as they are, remain financially dependent upon their men, and are expected to sit quietly while their husbands philander about town, with nobody batting an eyelid.  That is not to say the film is without its moments of levity, in fact it is frequently laugh out loud funny, but doesn't shy away from the dark side of its subject matter, particularly when Jo Jo's gangster husband, a wonderfully self-deprecating Chapman To, is brought into play.

The film's biggest strength is its triumvirate of central performances. The Hong Kong film industry all too rarely offers its actresses anything substantial to work with, and even the romantic leads are often given away to actresses from the Mainland, so HI, FIDELITY deserves double praise. Not only is the narrative entirely dependent upon three wonderfully rounded female roles, but roles specifically written for actresses, in the case of Pat Ha and Carrie Ng, fast-approaching 50. The film marks Ha's long awaited return to the big screen, in only her second role since the eighties, and she is nothing short of fantastic. She still looks absolutely gorgeous and perfectly captures the wavering confidence of a woman forced out of her comfort zone for the first time in years, only to reawaken her sexuality and start afresh.

Michelle Ye, as the youngest of the three women, plays the newly wed, albeit to a triad boss who flagrantly lauds his infidelity over her. We are given little information about her background, but as the film progresses we discover what truly motivates her and her willingness to play outside the rules. Ye proves an accomplished and daring seductress and continues her successful transition from television to the big screen in fine style here. As the oldest of the three women, Carrie Ng's Pinky is also the most overtly sexual, pouncing on William Chan with the hunger and ferocity of a woman half her age. Her absent husband and stressful home life seem ample justification for her frequent pleasure trips north, much to the tortured chagrin of her ever-faithful driver. Ng's story also produces the single best plot reveal of the film, which provoked an audible gasp from the entire audience, but which I wouldn't dare to reveal here.

Although there are occasional moments when the film's limited budget is exposed, apparently hitting the wardrobe department most severely as characters parade fine haute couture in one scene, only to recycle various items in others, but for the most part Calvin Poon creates a believable world of rich, yet emotionally empty women still looking for love. It's a story that is relevant, resonant and at times revelatory of how tai-tais with time on their hands choose to spend their free time and their unfaithful husbands' money and will hopefully find a healthy audience both here and overseas.

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