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Patrick Kong, Hong Kong’s top purveyor of cynical urban romantic comedy, returns with more of the same in “Natural Born Lovers”. It’s easy enough to see why Kong has proved so popular with audiences, as in trying to balance rom-com fluffiness with scepticism and darker touches, he does offer something a little different and less patronising than most genre fare. After a brief flirtation with horror with “Hong Kong Ghost Stories”, his latest outing sees him returning to more familiar territory, following up on “Love is the Only Answer” with another tale of love torture and rocky relationships.
The plot is certainly very Patrick Kong, following actor and singer Julian Cheung Chi Lam (“The Grandmasters”) as Tayler, a pastry chef and former child star, who meets and falls for gorgeous nurse Bo (Annie Liu, “Exodus”). Although everything seems to be going well at first, Lam soon comes to realise that there’s something lurking behind her lovely smile, as Bo shows her true colours as a crazed control freak dead-set on taking over every aspect of his life. Robbed of his privacy and finding himself being stalked every minute of the day, he tries to get to the bottom of her strange behaviour, though it looks increasingly unlikely that their relationship will survive.
With “Natural Born Lovers” Patrick Kong again celebrates the complexity of modern romance, with much of the film revolving around his characters lying to and deceiving each other, and finding out unpleasant truths about the ones they love. This does add a welcome amount of realism, and as with most of his other films, there’s a pleasing lack of moralising on show, even if the tone is at times a little uncertain. The film has somewhat more of a comedic bent than other of his recent efforts, with a fair amount of farce and gags at the expense of poor Lam as he gradually comes to realise the extent of Bo’s madness.
Most of the humour is dialogue based rather than slapstick, and the script is reasonably witty throughout, enough so to raise a decent quotient of laughs. Kong also shows a more wilful eccentricity in terms of some very bizarre throwaway plot details that pepper the film, including Tayler’s child star past (which rears its head only once before being swept under the carpet), a cursed lift and his ability to bake ‘memory cake’ (cue flashbacks), none of which make any sense or play any real narrative purpose, but which serve to make for an agreeably oddball feel.
It’s probably just as well that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, since its central coupling is hampered by the fact that Bo is clearly a bit of a nightmare, something which doesn’t naturally lend itself to cinematic romance. This isn’t really a bad thing, again helping the film to stand out from the usual genre sappiness, and it benefits from the fact that things actually do get quite dark, especially for any viewers who have experienced the same kind of possessiveness and borderline stalking. To be fair, the characters themselves are generally likeable or at least amusing, and the film balances drama and comedy well enough to make it engaging despite the lack of emotional payoff, and Kong does win points for not for going for simple explanations or a dot-connecting wrap up. Both Julian Cheung and Annie Liu do solid work in their roles, and this also helps make up for some of the film’s clumsiness, Kong still not quite yet having honed his craft to the level of being considered more than a competent film maker.
“Natural Born Lovers” is certainly up to the standard of his other films of the last few years, and comes as both a straightforward recommendation for fans and a perfectly reasonable place to start for Kong newcomers. Though flawed, the film offers an interesting take on the scheming at the heart of many modern relationships, and this healthy and amusing dose of cynicism does make for entertaining and occasionally sharp viewing.
Patrick Kong (director) / Patrick Kong (screenplay)
CAST: Pak-yu Chan
Lit Wai Leung