A story of a woman’s sexual awakening which ultimately fails to excite…
Ann (played by pop star/actress Charlene Choi) is a buttoned-down gynaecology nurse facing the breakdown of her sexless marriage. She’s forced to take leave from the job she clearly hates, and is called home to help run her father’s cha chaan teng, or Hong Kong-style diner, when he falls ill. But will she find fulfilment with the sexy new chef who turns up to try and turn the ailing diner’s fortunes around?
Writer-director Jessey Tsang set herself an ambitious task portraying the journey of a young woman discovering her sexuality. This is a strong subject matter and a pretty raunchy film. But unfortunately, it’s a little heavy-handed and spoon-feeds the audience some tired cliches to get its point across, ultimately disappointing.
Ann’s a gynaecology nurse, but also just so happens to be a virgin who’s never managed to consummate her marriage with her husband, a very one-dimensional character whose furtive fumbling leaves her cold. But she does have appetites – when her sexual interest is piqued she gorges on chicken, tearing the carcass apart with a reckless abandon. So far, so obvious.
At the same time that her boss tells her to take some time off, she just happens to have to go back to her childhood home, an apartment above the diner her father has run for decades. It’s a down-at-heel kind of place, but despite this the new cook is a gorgeous Paris-trained chef Chia-hao (Wu Kang-Jen), who just happens to be super-sexy and confident and gets her all flustered. It’s a pretty lazy stereotype – he’s been to France so he must be good in the sack! He’s flirting with the market vendors and shagging them in the kitchen! Anyhow, in no time he’s reinvigorating the old diner menu and Ann is beginning to blossom too.
All this could have made for an interesting film about finding confidence with a more experienced lover, which – spoiler alert – is what eventually happens. And the underlying story, of the decline of the cha chaan teng and its family of staff and customers, warrants a film of its own. But Ann’s journey is too full of coincidences which serve to push the action along. This is probably a function of trying to cram too much into too short a time frame, but it’s unbelievable and faintly ridiculous.
For example, Ann’s a dowdy, shy creature, but after a chance meeting with an old friend on the street she’s suddenly taking pole dancing classes with a bunch of super-lithe, super sexy women in towering heels and little else. And she’s happy to go along to a masked sex party in a swanky bar where – fancy that – she happens to run into her ex-husband (who unbelievably fails to recognise her, despite her flimsy disguise). A series of dates presents a stereotypical list of no-hopers: the man-child, the uptight guy who’s already planning how many kids they’ll have, the seemingly confident guy who flees when he finds out Ann’s a virgin. A diner regular tries to woo her, and seems like a nice guy, but nice guys finish last.
It’s increasingly obvious that she’ll end up with the sexually assertive Mr Chef. Of course, the wooing comes with plenty of 9 ½ Weeks-style sexy food play and when they finally do get together, there’s a morning-after scene where Ann finds a butterfly (a not very convincing CGI one) inside the apartment and releases it into the light. See? She’s no longer a sad asexual caterpillar!
In many ways, it’s a shame the film is so clumsy. The cast really do their best with the clunky script. There is great chemistry between Choi and Wu, although there’s not much “will-they-won’t-they” to really get things crackling. The rest of the cast, including veteran martial arts actor/director Tony Liu (The Way of the Dragon, Clan of Amazons) as Ann’s dad, don’t get much to do, but make a sterling effort of their scant roles.
There are some good ideas in The Lady Improper, but sadly they’re poorly executed. Yes, it pushes boundaries: the sex scenes are steamy and there’s a lot more skin than your average Hong Kong film. It also raises interesting questions about sexual expression and societal expectation, and also about the fate of the old-school diners which have been such an integral part of the city’s makeup. But it’s a shame it doesn’t really answer them.