Director: Lawrence Cheng
Cast: Ekin Cheung, Chrissie Chau, Ivana Wong, C AllStar, Alex He, Alex Lam, Miriam Yeung, Eric Kot, Chin Ka Lok, Angela Tong
RunTime: 1 hr 45 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Sexual References)
Released By: GV
Opening Day: 7 August 2014
Synopsis: The distance between two people in the world is the farthest not when they are face-to-face without realizing their love for each other; it is when they are deeply in love but are waiting for the other person to end the relationship first.
Sam and Barbara have been together for eight years, but the key to their relationship is breaking up. Each time Barbara threatens to leave, Sam would give in and beg her to come back, giving her an increasing upper hand. After their 99th breakup, the couple finally decides to stick through with their relationship and not break up so easily. They plan a future together by running their own café.
Served by employees Four Boys and frequented by the neighborhood eatery owner Shui Kee and Sam’s primary schoolmate FreeWin, the café soon becomes the hottest hangout spot, especially after Sam comes up with an off-the-wall idea, “the Breakup Mini Storage,” whereby customers can exhibit the memento mori of their broken up relationships for others to see. Sam is growing up at last: instead of frolicking all day long, he begins to draw serious plans about the future.
Ironically, the success of the café starts driving Sam and Barbara apart. When the café regular Lorraine , whose love interest just got married to someone else, grows closer to Sam, the 100th breakup between Sam and Barbara seems to be just around the corner.
Not since ‘Love in the Buff’ has a rom-com from Hong Kong touched us as much as ‘Break Up 100’, whose title is quite the oxymoron to the genre. Yes, this is about a couple played by Ekin Cheng and Chrissie Chau who have broken and gotten back together a total of 99 times over the past eight years, and are now determined to break the cycle. Their plan? To quit their office jobs and open a café together, which they call ‘Café Je-taie’- the spelling error for the title which was literally meant to mean ‘café of love’ unintentional.
At first, it isn’t quite clear where director Lawrence Cheng and his co-writers Silver Hau and Skipper Cheng are going with the story. Sam (Cheng) and Barbara (Chau) hire a quartet of acapella boys (played by the real-life quartet C AllStar) as waiters; an artsy-fartsy type (Eric Kot) becomes their first visitor and orders French toast and latte; in order to get that French toast, Sam calls the neighbourhood ‘cha-chan-teng’ and ends up making the acquaintance of its owner Shui Kee (Ivana Wong); and Sam proves himself a kid in mind and heart by skipping work to hang out with his buddies.
But just when you are ready to dismiss ‘Break Up 100’ as yet another loose collection of amusing vignettes, Sam stumbles onto the film’s central conceit. A couple gets into a heated quarrel at their café, an altercation which ends dramatically with the guy taking off his shirt, shoes and pants in front of the rest of the patrons. After storming out, Sam finds a pair of wedding rings left behind on the seat and with no way of contacting them, decides to pen a short love poem on a note and place both on one of the box-shelves in the café.
The concept takes off like wildfire, with heartbroken individuals bringing their love mementos and placing them on one of the many shelves. Each object has a tale of love behind it, and each tale of love a lesson in itself encapsulated in a love note which Sam personally pens. As business booms, Sam gets it into his head to start opening branches, and together with his buddies, begin exploring possible such venues. And yet Barbara is hardly supportive when she finds out, berating him of not giving enough thought to it as he often does not with anything in his life as well as not consulting with her beforehand.
Thus precipitates the 100th breakup - and also where things start to get really interesting. Despite displaying some tendency at the start to veer into the whimsical, Cheng keeps it thoroughly authentic at this point. Rather than follow the typical rom-com template where boy and girl get a happily-ever-after right at the end, Cheng grants Sam and Barbara their seemingly happily-ever-after two-thirds into the film. Indeed, after some emotional wrangling with his buddies, Sam decides to apologise and save his relationship from Barbara - but in his zeal to avoid another breakup, Sam overcompensates and becomes a terribly muted version of himself.
Cheng’s intention as a filmmaker only becomes clearer towards the end. This is a film about breaking up and making up, two of which are necessary stages in any relationship; but more than that, Cheng is interested to probe at what cost one will go to avoid the unavoidable pains of either. Is it to the extent that we become someone else altogether? Does true happiness in a relationship come from compromise or mutual understanding? And perhaps most importantly, how do we recognise what we truly treasure and value in our relationships? While it may not be apparent at the beginning, Cheng dives confidently into examining each and every one of these serious-minded questions through the lens of Sam and Barbara, daringly ending the film on a bittersweet note which also leaves much food for thought for the viewer.
To his credit, Cheng navigates the tonal shifts of the movie expertly, starting with a playful tone and then slowly settling into something much more down-to-earth. The veteran screenwriter of Barbara Wong’s rom-coms ‘Break Up Club’, ‘Perfect Wedding’ and ‘The Allure of Tears’ also adds several nice touches as director, such as using C AllStar’s acapella voices for the soundtrack as well as a thoroughly enjoyable sequence in the middle where different strangers take turns to speak into the camera of their failed relationships. And as screenwriter, he adds a quirky twist by setting up Shui Kee in a fictional love triangle with real-life husband-and-wife pair Chin Kar-lok and Angela Tong.
Cheng also works casting magic by enlisting Ekin Cheng and Chrissie Chau in the lead roles. While Ekin may seem a natural choice for the character given his matinee-idol looks and his familiarity with the genre (the title of the movie quite clearly alludes to his earlier 1990s ‘Feel 100%’ hit), the age difference between the pair doesn’t make that pairing that intuitive; but Cheng deftly overcomes that by making Ekin Cheng the ‘kidult’ who remains childish and infantile for his age and Chrissie the exact opposite who makes the decisions for both of them. It’s a refreshing actor-character twist, and Chau impresses with quite possibly her most mature and nuanced performance to date.
Other supporting actors also add delightful bits to the movie, including C AllStar, Miriam Yeung as a female policewoman whose beat covers the street on which the café is located, Alex He as Ekin Cheng’s slacker buddy who still has a soft spot for his ex-wife, and not forgetting Jan Lamb whose expressive voice provides the narration for the movie. A little touch of sweet, a generous dollop of humour, slathered with warmth, poignancy and meaning, ‘Break Up 100’ is our favourite rom-com of the year.
(Sweet, funny, heartwarming and poignant, ‘Break Up 100’ will probably be the best Hong Kong rom-com you'll see this year)
Review by Gabriel Chong