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Original Title:
Chan mat

Hong Kong 2008

Drama, Romance

Ivy Ho

Karena Lam
Ekin Cheng
Felix Lok
Derek Tsang
Chucky Woo
Andy Hui
Eric Tsang

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Story: Like every day Tom (Ekin Cheng), manager of an import/export company, drives his subordinates home. Among them is the always nagging oldtimer Karl (Felix Lok), the spoiled girl Jewel (Chucky Woo), the emotional and somewhat feminine John (Derek Tsang) and the reserved Pearl (Karena Lam). John and Jewel get into an argument while being driven home, which hints at them having some kind of love relationship between colleagues. However, when the married manager Tom and Pearl are the only ones left in the car it becomes evident that these two also share more with one another than just a professional business relationship. Yet, Tom seems to be pushing to end this relationship as he recommends Pearl for a position at another company. Slowly the events around Tom and Pearl start to unfold, which eventually lead to that evening. What kind of relationship do the two colleagues really have and what part do the financial problems of the company play in Tom's decision to dismiss Pearl from her job? A journey into the past of Pearl's tragic love story with Tom provides the answers.

Review: It's unusual to see a movie coming out from Hong Kong that approaches the subject of two co-workers or a manager and his subordinate, who share a romantic relationship only hinted at, with such a fine sense for subtlety and cold finesse like here. Because of its slow pacing and the fact that the movie demands of the viewer to work out the true emotions and facts from the at first glance insignificant dialogues for himself, "Claustrophobia" has a lot in common with an art-house flick. Therefore, the movie, despite some noteworthy achievements, also has to struggle with some problems. Our interest in the characters is there, at least somehow, but the withhold emotions make us build up a certain emotionals distance towards the events. Furthermore, the film can also be somewhat frustrating at times, as we don't know where the movie is trying to head to in the end. Nevertheless, it's nice to see a profound drama from Hong Kong, which obviously has been made by someone with expertise behind the camera.

Scriptwriter Ivy Ho, who has already made a name for herself with her subtle drama stories for "July Rhapsody" and "Comrades: Almost a Love Story", debuts with "Claustrophobia" as a director and leaves no doubt that she knows how to bring her vision of a drama to the big screen. Standing out is the indirectness with which Ho takes us into her characters' world of emotions. The viewer as the individuals in the drama themselves always seems to be submitted to a certain passivity. Oftentimes that can be frustrating, yet also motivates you to read more between the lines. And that's exactly where the whole movie is actually taking place. We can only indirectly draw conclusions concerning the thoughts and emotions of the characters. In some conversations we also get to know more about the background story of the individuals, which made them the persons they are in the present. These conversations can be everything from a seemingly unimportant chat with a long-time acquaintance to a phyisician or a taxi driver.

Interesting is that "Claustrophobia" gradually tells its story backwards after the introduction. We start from one week in the past until we get to one year prior the decisive conversation at the beginning, and during that time we are presented with a lot of small details that demand constant attention of you if you don't want to miss anything, and this is something that proves to be quite motivating. However, Ivy Ho has to tolerate the question why she actually decided to use this kind of backwards narration. It serves no real purpose, and I can tell you this much without spoiling the whole movie that there is no big revelation at the end or even some tears being shed. Ho's drama is very reserved, sometimes this also means that it's a little bit cold, and you never really know what to make of that narration structure, as you can't fight the feeling that it only found its way into the film out of self-admiration by the director.

Acting-wise the drama is working on a high level, since the actors have to convey emotions with sometimes nothing more than a few gestures or a glance. Karena Lam ("July Rhapsody", "Silk") manages to do that in an outstanding fashion and therefore carries the film on her shoulders quite well. But even Ekin Cheng (recently almost unrecognizable in "Rule Number One") delivers a solid performance. Especially among the supporting actors Felix Lok is fun to watch as the brusk old-timer and also Andy Hui as the taxi driver can convince in one of the movie's key moments which is essential in drawing the complex structures that are hiding beneath the cold surface of "Claustrophobia".
Sometimes you have to wonder about the lengthy dialogues at one and the same set, though. Oftentimes you get the feeling that this is all insignificant small-talk that leads nowhere, but it's just these conversations seeming somewhat to stretched for its own good, that disclose a lot of material you need to uncover.

The pictures of "Claustrophobia" are appealing, especially the many serene driving scenes through the nightly Hong Kong are mesmerizing. Ivy Ho's steady hand in her directing is supported by the wonderful cinematography of Lee Pin Bing ("Secret", "After this our Exile"), who manages to imbue the pictures with something dreamlike and beautiful.
In the end, it's not easy to pass a sentence on "Claustrophobia". In technical respects, the movie is on a par with the upper class of movie dramas, and with its subject and presentation it also doesn't aim for the casual movie-goer, but one that is willing to dive deep into a subtle drama of this kind. For those Ivy Ho's debut work will offer a lot, yet the coldness and subtlety may put off some viewers and rightly so. But more than anything else it's the narration that will give you a feeling of frustration at the end, because when the credits start to roll out of nowhere, you are left with a lot of questions. Still, a movie that's worth a look.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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