Claustrophobia (2008)

Written & directed by: Ivy Ho
Producers: Cary Cheng & Yee Chung-Man
Starring: Karena Lam, Ekin Cheng, Felix Lok, Chucky Woo, Derek Tsang, Eric Tsang & Andy Hui

Buy the DVD at:


Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2009:
Best New Director (Ivy Ho)
Best Screenplay (Ivy Ho)
Best Actress (Karena Lam)
Best Cinematography (Cheng Siu-Keung)

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2009:
Best Screenplay (Ivy Ho)
Film Of Merit

Acclaimed and award winning writer Ivy Ho (whose screenplays include Comrades, Almost A Love Story and July Rhapsody) debut as director, Claustrophobia is far from the usual romantic formula as Ivy has expressed she was fed up with being asked to write romances. So she puts together a drama that might not feature romance at all as it's pretty much heartbreak at the beginning and then we track back one month at a time, a few and end up at a point where it's all been brewing. How IS the brew then? Ivy Ho's non-commercial choice is very welcome as well as the stance against the expected. Plus, it is compelling to follow the rearviewmirror view, be toyed with, add up pieces but don't expect to be stirred. It may be cinema but it's also more in tune with real life. That's something TO be thankful for cinema fans.

During the usual carpooling back home, Tom (Ekin Cheng) in the driver's seat witnesses Jewel (Chucky Woo) and boyfriend John (Derek Tsang) start an argument that leads to their ejection and into a taxi. The senior and superior Karl (Felix Lok) gets off as usual and left are Tom and Pearl (Karena Lam). Uncomfortable silences and small chat later, the tension rises and Tom offers Pearl a position at a different company. An interrupted kiss finds it way into the scenario too but an upset Pearl eventually rushes away. We cut to a month earlier and the start of a year long trackback where we find out what lead to tension, infatuation and how resignation letter plays a role in all this...

Although occupying the first reel with scenes essentially all set within Tom's car, Ivy Ho isn't out to enthrall us with snappy, catchy, hip dialogue but she favours the dynamics between people, most of which have been forced together as employees. Dry small talk, a superior not letting go off those ways in the car home, a less than steady office romance... it's all indeed very claustrophobic. It's also very slow by intent, by method and Ivy Ho's task here is to grip certain audiences who are willing to go with a less than expected formula. When she also tracks back, which one of you wants out and go comfortably forward instead? She does very well with mentioned uncomfortable moments and draws them out not to an unbearable level but to a suitably real one and there's reason to be onboard a very quiet but highly emotional journey as it turns out.

Pearl examines past connections between her doctor (Eric Tsang) and her mother (an unrealized romance), she is stuck with a taxi driver (Andy Hui) during typhoon season and the meaning of all these scenarios, the why's and how's become pretty clear if you want to invest yourself in again quiet but extreme emotions... going backwards. In real life and certainly not in the office, we don't carry much of what we feel on the outside and only occasionally feelings slip to the outside to the extent that we do something irrational/go with our heart. A hint to you all is that the scene in the rain is evidence of this. Where there's no interest is when characters talk office politics, gossip and essentially business. Possibly done by design as we light up more when the characters do and opens up (Ekin Cheng's married Tom in particular when loosening his tie and guard a little and revealing dreams as well as preassures of the future), our main question we never get an easily identifiable answer to but Ivy Ho argues rather successfully that we ourselves draw conclusions as to how much is brewing.

In the end what Tom and Pearl have, may not have, may get or may not get represents an interesting and immersing non-commercial (despite commercial stars) experiment in restraint, structure and subtlety. It's not easy to gently stroke as a storyteller but on board and fitting these tools utilized are her leads Karena Lam and Ekin Cheng. Comfortable with each other after movies such as It Had To Be You, their on-screen chemistry is clearly tested and suitably a bit awkward and distant. By design and Ivy Ho has designed an easy puzzle of a movie with Claustrophobia. It is a bit too anti for the general movie goer but it also shows an intelligence and bravery by a new director wanting her first project to be something substantial. It is. It isn't riveting but it isn't supposed to be that telling. Emotions aren't that telling always.

The DVD (Edko):

Video: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.

Audio: Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0.

Subtitles: English, Chinese (optional)


* Director's commentary (in Cantonese, no subtitles)

* Making of (20 minutes). Equipped with English subtitles and with an unusually in depth discussion on the film by the cast & crew, it's particularly interesting to hear Ivy Ho, interviewed by co-producer Cary Cheng, discuss her intent, the actors talk of the very strict rule of following the script and even co-producer Yee Chung-Man shares his past collaborations with Ivy. Some raw behind the scenes footage shows shooting in harsh weather conditions but even some of that was manufactured via CG in subtle ways.

*Photo gallery (10 images), the trailer and cast & crew filmographies (for Karena Lam. Ekin Cheng and Ivy Ho).


reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson