Homely scientist Fan-Fan (Zhou Xun) secretly invents the magical “Pheromone Stickers” in order to maximise her seductive charms and thus find true love. Men swarm like bees to honey around gorgeous businesswoman Tang Lu (Kitty Zhang Yuqi), but she is eager to prove she has more to offer besides beauty. Punk rock chick Tie Ling (Kwai Lun-Mei) has always been with the “man of her dreams”… even if he’s only a figment of her imagination. A chance meeting at a restaurant draws these kooky girls and their calamitous love lives into a whirlwind of misunderstandings, thwarted passions and romantic misadventure.
Whoever thought Tsui Hark, the man behind A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and Once Upon a Time in China (1991), would score his biggest hit in years with Hong Kong’s answer to Sex and the City? Actually, Hark has always been interested in feminist issues and strong female characters going back to his period action classic Peking Opera Blues (1986) and failed attempt to convince John Woo to make A Better Tomorrow (1986) with an all-female cast. Although Chinese critics drew the Sex and the City comparisons, while All About Women is refreshingly frank about women’s sexual desires (for a non-Category III Hong Kong movie, anyway), the tone is less raunchy than zany. Thankfully, one does not need to have the xx chromosome to enjoy this sassy saga of sexual one-upmanship, thanks to a sharp script from Kwak Jae-Yong, the Korean writer-director behind My Sassy Girl (2001).
As often with Jae-Yong, beneath the surface wackiness lies a story about three emotionally scarred people whose comic misadventures bring about often painful self-revelations and ultimately prove part of a healing process. His other trademark are the surreal detours into sci-fi subplots, manifest here as “selective sclerosis” - a rare condition Fan-Fan suffers from that leaves her prone to Carrie-like psychokinetic outbursts during courtship and sex. This serves as part of the film’s central message that in order to find love one has to risk being vulnerable, as anxious Fan-Fan, calculating Tang Lu and angry Tie Ling slowly welcome intimacy with their respective, good-hearted paramours: rock guitarist Xiao Gang (Stephen Fung), eco-activist Professor Wu (Alex Fong) and long-suffering office drone Mo (Godfrey Kao).
The film struck a chord with Hong Kong moviegoers in ways that might not resonate with an English audience. For one thing, it is plugged into very 21st century Chinese tensions between rampant economic growth and the dehumanisation of society. Set in a vibrant, multicultural Hong Kong of incredibly chic surroundings and glamorous women, the film stresses a winning message about setting corporate greed aside in favour of worthier artistic and eco-friendly pursuits. Hark’s breakneck visual style, punctuated by daydreams, fantasies and cartoon sequences perfectly suits Jae-Yong’s vibrant script, although surprisingly for him it takes about an hour to establish the characters and draw them all together. His restless experimentation sometimes runs to the detriment of his storytelling, but the gags are often very funny indeed. Especially priceless are the scenes where Tie Ling sings a duet with her imaginary boyfriend in front of a baffled audience and when nearsighted Fan-Fan creates havoc at an auction.
If the frantic pace proves exhausting, viewers can latch onto a trio of top-notch performances. Kitty Zhang Yuqi demonstrates she can do so much more than just stand around looking pretty, as she was wastefully required to in CJ7 (2008). She ably conveys the outwardly conceited Tang Lung’s self-delusion and secret vulnerability, as someone who has looks, power and wealth but not a single friend. Kwan-Lun Mei makes a very convincing rock chick, despite indulging Jae-Yong’s usual comic preoccupation with girls who beat up their boyfriends. She also contributes to the fantastically eclectic soundtrack that proves Hong Kong has finally found an indie rock scene!
By far the most inspired comic turn comes courtesy of Zhou Xun. After playing a schizophrenic in Baober in Love (2004), a sexy kung fu diva in Ming Ming (2007) and a lovelorn ghost in Painted Skin (2008), she further stakes her claim to being one of the most versatile actresses in modern Chinese cinema by gamely sporting a bad haircut and deadpan demeanour. Most of the laugh-out-loud moments revolve around her character.
Interestingly, All About Women opts for an open-ended conclusion rather more bittersweet than your standard rom-com ending. That seems fitting since after all, love is a complicated beast, though the film seems to imply if you open your heart to a woman you are just as likely to get punched in the face as kissed.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.