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  Publicity Stills of
(Courtesy of Festive Films)

In Mandarin with English & Chinese subtitles
Director: Ivy Ho
Cast: Karena Lam, Ekin Cheng, Felix Lok, Derek Tsang, Chucky Woo, Eric Tsang, Andy Hui
RunTime: 1 hr 40 mins
Released By: Festive Films & Cathay-Keris Films & InnoForm Media
Rating: PG
Official Website: http://www.festivefilms.com/claustrophobia/

Opening Day: 7 May 2009


Love is a virus. It incubates silently. It strikes suddenly. It's favourite breeding ground is small, crowded, claustrophobic spaces such as an office.

Pearl (Karena Lam), a marketing executive in her twenties, found herself being drawn closer and closer to Tom (Ekin Cheng), her married-with-kids boss. She has been working for him for quite some time and Tom is ever so gentle and kind. Is this love? Pearl ponders. If so, is the feeling mutual? How and when did a normal working relationship gradually evolve into something romantic? What should she do now?

Told in eight scenes retrospectively, the film examines the mysterious blossoming and dying of an elusive affair. The saddest thing about this is: it is such a commonplace happening. In the tiny universe known as office, two powerful forces are at play – politics and romance.

Movie Review:

Ivy Ho's directorial debut unfolds with an intriguing 20-minute long scene of an office carpool led by Tom (Ekin Cheng), a manager in a import/export company married with two kids. In the car are his four other co-workers- experienced old-hand Karl (Felix Lok), bespectacled young geek John (Derek Tsang), fashionable sass Jewel (Chucky Woo) and not forgetting, the pleasant and unassuming Pearl (Karena Lam).

One by one, they leave as they reach their destination, until eventually it's just Tom and Pearl in the car. There is something going on between Tom and Pearl- you can sense it from their long uncomfortable silence or their awkward glances at each other- but you just can't put your finger on it. What you realise in retrospect is that you have just witnessed the end of a year-old clandestine attraction that both Tom and Pearl have for each other.

Attraction is perhaps the best word to describe their "are-they-or-aren't-they" relationship that is the crux of this movie. Told in eight vignettes in reverse chronology, Ivy Ho (of "Comrades, A Love Story" and "July Rhapsody" fame) only hints but never shows their feelings for each other. There's not a kiss or hug that passes between them- instead, all we have are their casual conversations, sidelong glances and easy chemistry to contend with.

Indeed, as her past works aptly demonstrated, Ivy Ho is a master at simple, affectionate tales of romance between two ordinary people caught up in the circumstance of their lives. Claustrophobia is again one such tale- the title is an oblique reference to the cramped office spaces that is a consequence of Hong Kong's land scarcity - and some of the dialogue-heavy vignettes shine through with her characteristic wit.

But somehow the whole is sadly less than the sum of its parts. What makes the overall less satisfying, and perhaps even frustrating, is her intentional obscurity of Tom and Pearl's emotions for each other. It may be tantalizing at the start to imagine what could have happened between them; but as each vignette unfolds, one inevitably expects the veil of vagaries to be lifted, to find out in more certain terms than the film is willing to offer, what transpired between Tom and Pearl.

Instead it never happens- and while that is the result of Ivy Ho's decided subtlety, it undeniably proves to be the film's biggest weakness. Thankfully, Claustrophobia does boast of the luminous performance of Karena Lam. As she so aptly demonstrated with her award-winning debut July Rhapsody, Karena Lam is a great actress in conveying understated dramatic emotions- and she does so beautifully through her wistful eyes and restrained acting.

Office romances have traditionally been frowned upon and Claustrophobia's theme of two people trying to deal with their feelings for each other amidst such a disapproving climate will likely strike a chord with many. Yet Ivy Ho's keen observation of such ambiguities is ultimately undone by the ambiguities of her own film- and this movie ends up being much less affecting than it could have been.

Movie Rating:

Review by Gabriel Chong

(More a work to be admired than enjoyed, Ivy Ho's directorial debut is too frustratingly sublime for its own good.)


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