Love Is Not A Game, But A Joke (1997)

Directed by: Riley Yip
Written by: Riley Yip & Yeung Chi San
Producer: Stanley Kwan
Starring: Jan Lam, Andy Hui, Wallace Chung, Shu Qi, Teresa Lee & Christine Ng

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Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1998:
Best Actress (Shu Qi)

Nomination at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 1998:
Best Actress (Shu Qi)

There are plenty of romantic movies in Hong Kong but there are few who actually bring something noteworthy to the screen. This was director Riley Yip's first film and it's a movie that, in parts, have weaknesses or does it really?

Three longtime friends (Jan Lam, Andy Hui and Wallace Chung) checks in at the Peninsula Hotel for a week to play a game. Whoever can find Karen (who all of them are in love with) first gets to be her boyfriend and the three men will then seize to be friends. They have a week to do this and each start searching in their own different way. As fate will have it, the three men meets three women and as the week goes by, the bonds between these three couples grow stronger...

With Metade Fumaca and Lavender, Riley Yip showed that he was a cinematic force that Hong Kong cinema needed. Fans haven't fully embraced his style since it's more challenging thematically and in terms of content. That's why it's good that he choose a romantic story for his debut, a genre that's easy to get into. Riley does make sure he hides some simple but genuine messages within the film though.

I was ready to bail on this review after the first 20 minutes of Love Is Not A Game, But A Joke because I just didn't recognize Riley Yip. You certainly don't expect a debut director to display perfection but there was so much strength in Riley's second film (Metade Fumaca) that there had to be some of that in his first film. What we get to see in the beginning is the simple plot setup and a pacing that's comes off as rather jerky. The characters and the actors are flat and because of that I just couldn't get into the film at this point. It's only when Jan Lam's character first meets the bus driver Sabrina (Christine Ng) that the sensitivity and Riley's talent to showcase the small little moments is apparent. The movie jumps between the three developing friendships but those other two couples still fail to engage the viewer. Shu Qi and Andy Hui look very stiff and display no real chemistry, as does Wallace Chung and Teresa Lee. After about one third of Love Is Not A Game, But A Joke, something happens...

These relationship are story wise a little stiff because these people do not know each other and it's only gradually throughout that the characters start to open up. What I think screenwriters Riley Yip and Yeung Chi San is trying to tell is that it's not easy for us and the characters to be with each other at first because strangers don't always click from the beginning. As each minute passes and each relationship grows stronger, I became more convinced that the initial stiffness in performances and characters were intentional on Riley's behalf.

Riley doesn't forget to now and again remind us that the quest for the mystery woman Karen is the three guys main priority. They each become more close to the women who helps them look but the director doesn't let the movie become a clichéd romance. They may or not fall in love with these new women and Riley does a great job keeping us guessing what their choices in the end will be. There's romantic elements to the script that aren't groundbreaking but, as I always say, a well written script and good actors can get you very far from what has been seen before. The only real problem I have with the film is the bonding between Teresa Lee and Wallace Chung. It doesn't feel quite as compelling as the other two and the reasons for their connection doesn't feel fully realized. Chemistry wise they're lacking somewhat but the final product doesn't suffer. Every first film for someone have a weakness and this is the one in Riley Yip's case.

This 1997 production is very low budget and mostly takes place in or around actual locations in Hong Kong. It's not entirely impossible that the crew got to shoot inside the actual Peninsula Hotel either. This adds authenticity but when the movie first was uneven, the low budget also added to that. The shooting schedule probably didn't allow for planning of big technical shots so what we see is a very straightforward visual style. Some compositions by DP Jingle Ma are interesting and the second half contains some intense editing for comical purposes.

Just like Riley's other films, music plays a pretty big part. The composer is Yue Yat Yiu but there's very little composed music and instead more selected musical tracks. In the terrific opening credits sequence (put together by Centro Digital) we get to hear a less vocal version of the Macarena and it appears a few times more later in the film. Just like Metade Fumaca there's also an assortment of Latin music flavored tunes that doesn't have anything to with the characters or events on screen but still fits the scenes they're inserted in. In the sentimental moments canto-pop is used and say what you want about that but Riley knows what will work for the emotion of the scene. Even if the music creates a good deal of emotion, the scenes wouldn't have worked if the actors weren't conveying that as well. Riley also used Nicholas Tse's songs to good effect in Metade Fumaca.

For Love Is Not A Game, But A Joke we see three women and three men in the leading roles, even if they don't have an equal amount of screentime. For me some of them were unknown faces which makes them seem more like real people in this film. The recognizable faces such as Christine Ng (from 9413) and Teresa Lee (from Lunch With Charles) still blend in well but the two performances I dug the most were Jan Lam's and Shu Qi's.

All the tree male characters have some sort of distinguishing trait or events that repeats on them but the most interesting is Jan Lam and his obsession with fragrances. This is how he connects with Sabrina when he smells her perfume on the bus. He's a little bit of a mama's boy which makes him look and act a little young and Sabrina almost seem like a motherly character when with him. They connect because of other reasons though. Jan Lam has or has created a perfect young look for himself and plays quiet but with a sense of smartness.

Then there's the always beautiful Shu Qi in another nominated and memorable role. She is an actress with an impressive range for her age (see Portland Street Blues for example) and despite her sexy image, I hope she will continue to challenge herself in films. Here she plays a policewoman (that's two times now Riley Yip has put a female character of his in a police uniform) who is heartbroken after her triad boyfriend (Vincent Wan) left her. I hear moans from the readers but the character is real in the hands of Shu Qi. At first she's a little irritating when we or Andy Hui doesn't know her. She opens up and shows us how hurt she is, which generates a truly touching scene at a karaoke bar where she watches her ex-boyfriend sing with his new girlfriend.

In the end, we have grown to really like these characters and through that Riley achieves his message with the film: follow your heart. You decide whether the weaknesses in the film are the work of a bad or a genius director. For me, this is a great first movie from Riley Yip.

The DVD:

Mei Ah presents the movie in a slightly cropped 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It has a washed out look and plenty of little print defects. Colours are ok but this is basically a dull transfer.

The Cantonese 3.0 (according to my player) Dolby Digital track isn't very exciting either. Maybe because of the low budget it sounds very thin and very much mono except when music kicks in. A mandarin 3.0 track is also on the disc.

The subtitles are burned in and contained no huge errors. They're always readable also which is a plus when we're dealing with these cinema print subtitles. There's no extras or even a menu because this is an earlier Mei Ah release.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson