Claustrophobia is not like the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong movies that I have seen. Where in your typical Hong Kong flick characters state implicitly and clearly what they are feeling so that the entire world and his dog can get behind it, in Claustrophobia our cast of bedraggled yet always immaculately dressed office staff keep their emotions a tightly guarded secret. As an audience the trick throughout this movie is to read between the lines, to catch a glimpse of human frailty lest you spend the entire movie wondering what the point of it all is.
The movie begins with Tom (Ekin Cheng) dropping his closest co-workers home at the end of a shift. They are essentially a motley crew of typicals; the old grumpy one, the office bimbo and the nervy geek. And then there is Pearl (Karina Lam) who is last to arrive home. Whilst sat in the car, Tom takes this opportunity to tell Pearl that she is a great employee and deserves a better job working for someone else. What he is really saying here is that she should take a hike because the mutual office flirting could screw his marriage up; Pearl doesn’t take too kindly to this.
From that point on the structure of the movie makes its presence felt, we go back in time 1 week and witness events prior to the incident in Tom’s car, then, for the next scene we go back in time a further 2 weeks, a month, 2 months and so on. There are many thematic similarities between this movie and Ann Hui’s July Rhapsody (also shown as part of the Visible Secrets season – Cornerhouse, Manchester) which Ivy Ho also wrote; in fact such are the similarities between that movie and this one that I should shorten this particular review for fear of sounding like a stuck record. However it is the above mentioned reverse-structuring that sets this film apart.
So, back in time we go… There is a scene with a wonderful cameo from Eric Tsang as a Doctor, Pearl goes to see the doctor with a throat complaint yet her ulterior motive is to quiz him about his relationship with her mother. Why this scene exists was not 100% clear to me however what transpires is that Eric Tsang’s character misses Pearl’s mother dearly, but the lack of a display of honest feeling has left the relationship in a stalemate. This lack of openness, a denial of the truth is mirrored not only in the relationship between Pearl and Tom, it is perhaps the key driving force behind the movie. Further back in time there is a scene in which Tom having had one too many glasses of wine, falls asleep. It is then that, frustratingly for the viewer, Pearl reveals the truth that she has strong feelings for him.
The notion of physical “claustrophobia” is represented to an almost infinite degree; an office stuffed full of junk, awkward tensions whilst in a crowded lift, even the over populated goldfish tank in Eric Tsang’s office. At one point Pearl finds herself stuck in a broken down taxi in a rainstorm (a brief relationship with the driver follows but where this leads nobody knows!) An emotional “claustrophobia” hangs over the heads of our protagonists throughout too (bet you didn’t see that link coming) it’s just that as mentioned in the opening paragraph it really is a subtle thing to spot. Both Karena Lam’s and Ekin Cheng’s performances pay great testament to this. It is the things they don’t say, the lack of glaring into each other’s eyes the persistent denial that is the clue. Ivy Ho’s direction on picking up and honing in on these subtleties is sublime; even if the characters themselves fail to give us an emotional outburst, the possibility is always there tempting us in every scene like a dangling carrot to a donkey. If you can accept the “life is like that” hurdle that Claustrophobia throws in front of you then you will find something to savor.
[Ed. Note; Podcast on Fire has taken the plunge into providing movies reviews from various Festivals across the United Kingdom. Full credit to Lantern Jaw for attending Visible Secrets]