Love on a Diet - 15 years later
This doesn't happen as often anymore, but back in the early 2000s, Johnnie To would space out his highly stylized crime thrillers with crowd pleasing romantic comedies. In interviews, he'd often talk about how the commercial success of these comedies would help fund his more personal projects - ie. those that most people recognize him for on the international stage. But don't let statements like this perturb your expectations of these 'less personal' projects. They're usually extremely well thought out, and together with collaborator Wai Ka Fai, serve as commentaries on relevant societal issues. Add to the fact that they're also exceptionally well made because Johnnie To is a total boss, and you're often left with some of the most well-made popcorn fare of the 21st century. Okay, I'm overhyping things a little here, but it's hard for me not to get pumped when it comes to Johnnie To.
So I recently re-watched Love on a Diet, and was initially planning on writing this up as part of the 'Film of the Week' section. But on second thought, I realized I needed a bit more room to reflect on this 2001 film that was popular in Hong Kong for obvious reasons. Aside from being a Johnnie To movie, it put Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng (both of whom were at the peak of their acting/singing game) in fat suits. In terms of an American equivalent during that same time period, imagine seeing Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in fat suits for a romantic comedy. Mind you, Lau and Cheng were known to make these sorts of movies (unlike DiCaprio and Winslet), but it was still kind of a big deal. Especially coming off the success of another romantic comedy a year earlier (Needing You..., also by To), the commercial vitality of Love on a Diet was never a question. I could probably talk about Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng collaborations for quite a while, so will leave that for another post.
And although I always knew that this was a film that would stand the test of time for me on a personal level, I didn't think it would hold such a high tier of relevance 15 years later. To sum things up, Love on a Diet really speaks to the challenges and, more importantly, the value of perseverance. Persevering against adversity and self-doubt because these are things that often holds us back in life. But the film also speaks to the differential in societal versus personal values. We often push through difficult situations with societal norms driving our primary motivations. And so much of what we perceive to be the norm is dictated by popular culture. This was true back in 2001, and it's perhaps even more true today. In the film, Sammi Cheng's character loses weight because of her affliction to achieve beauty in the context of a culture that values a certain type of body image. Andy Lau's character helps her achieve this goal not because he wants her to look this way, but because he was on a personal pursuit to make her happy.
In the end, Cheng's character is left feeling empty despite working so hard to achieve what she thought she wanted. Her primary motivation for doing what she did relied heavily on receiving external validation for her actions, and this is often a recipe for failure. Lau's character, on the other hand, was left beaten and battered, but never asked for more than personal validation. Despite being a bitter sweat ending (initially, anyways), you could tell that his character was largely happier than his female counterpart. And I think this is such a relevant message with our current culture of social media and endorsement of superficial success. The expectation that others need to know and comment on our everyday actions in order for them to receive meaning, is worrisome. Back in 2001, social media wasn't really in play, but this idea of suiting up to popularism and yearning external validation certainly existed. I would just say that it's just gotten much worse today.
Coincidentally, I started watching Black Mirror (Season 3) on Netflix this week, and the first episode takes a dip at this concept to an extreme level. The episode's story revolves around a not-so-distant future where the world operates on a system that assigns everyone into a rating system. You're constantly rating each other, and your overall rating determines your place in society. Without going into too much detail, the higher your rating is, the better and 'happier' you are in life. And I'm sure this speaks loudly to a lot of people, but for me, it was almost too loud. But hey, Black Mirror's essentially a sci-fi series so this approach makes sense. On a side note, watch this show if you haven't already. It's awesome stuff.
Now, back to Love on a Diet. This movie criticizes the culture of needing external validation to achieve personal happiness, and does so in a much more subtle way. I won't say that it was ahead of its time, because this culture has always existed and the movie was simply commentating on its lived reality at the time. But 15 years later, it's a reminder that things have actually been pushed even further. This isn't a plug to not use social media, it's a plug to not let that formulate into your equation of happiness. And I know that this can be hard. As someone who only uses social media minimally, that sense of comparing yourself to others and needing some form of acknowledgement in return, is hard to shake off sometimes. But you just have to find a way somehow. And for me, seeing a movie centred around two people dressed in fat suits is a perfect reminder of that.