For a few months now, China Lion Entertainment has been better in theory than in practice. For those that missed my Lunar New Year piece: China Lion is an American distributor of popular contemporary Chinese and Hong Kong films. Until this week and with the notable exceptions of some interesting but inconsistent melodramas like Aftershock and Love in Space, China Lion had yet to release a film worth recommending without serious reservations. China Lion films typically don't leave you with any resonant emotions beyond superficial first impressions. They're fluffy, and, even in the extreme case of Aftershock, a family drama about two generations of Tangshan Great Earthquake survivors, there's very little gravity to them.

Thankfully, with the release of Love in the Buff, Hong Kong co-writer/director Ho-cheung Pang's (aka: Edmond Pang) sequel to the equally moving and light romcom Love in a Puff, China Lion has finally released something worth recommending (China Lion never released Love in a Puff, presumably because it originally released when the company, which focuses mostly on first-run features, did not exist in 2010).

Love in the Buff follows a young former couple as they try to meet other people while struggling to get back together. Like many of Pang's previous offbeat comedies, Love in the Buff is a movie about storytelling and the cumulative effect of white lies. Pang's young lovers tell each other stories about people they know and about each other, like the one about the girl with a lover's pube stuck in her bracelet or the plain-looking blind date whose mother claims he looks like In the Mood for Love star Tony Leung Chiu-wai (the man explains that his mother only meant that he is as tall as Leung). In telling these small, incestuously inter-related fictions, Pang's characters create the lives they want to lead out of the unremarkable ones they currently live.

That heady concept is developed at the start of Love in a Puff, in which Cherie Yu (Miriam Yeung) and Jimmy Cheung (Shawn Yue), two soon-to-be lovers, meet while huddled over a trash can for a smoke (in 2009, a law in Hong Kong was passed that banned smoking in office buildings and some public parks, too). Pang frames the romance in Love in the Buff similarly by showing Cherie and Jimmy chatting conspiratorially about a mutual friend. No matter how hard their mutual friend tries to protect her boyfriends, they all inexplicably die, or so the story goes. One dies after doing laundry at a Laundromat so the friend buys a washer machine. But her next boyfriend falls to his death from a window while hanging laundry up to dry at home, and so on.

So unlike Love in a Puff, which started with a story about a man being trapped in a trunk and the aforementioned pube anecdote, Love in the Buff starts with a personal, fatalistic myth of Cherie and Jimmy's "Black Widow" friend. You don't have to know who Cherie and Jimmy are or where they are in their relationship after the events of Love in a Puff because Pang has just had his jaded lovers tell us. They're scared of losing each other, an anxiety that soon proves to be self-fulfilling.

In the Love in the ____ series, Cherie and Jimmy relate to each other and people in general primarily through character-embellishing tall tales. So it's not surprising that, even after the couple drifts apart in Love in the Buff when Jimmy announces that he has to move to Beijing for work, Cherie and he still both remake their lives based on little fictions. And when Cherie and Jimmy's friends and loved ones can't meet the high expectations that the set up in Cherie and Jimmy's private stories, the nee personality traits that hey exhibit become the raw material for new stories.

For instance, Jimmy starts dating a Beijing girl named You-You (Mini Yang), a flight attendant, after she promises to repay a favor that Jimmy did for her by helping him "in bed." While Jimmy's thinking he'll get laid, You-You actually just wants to meet at a trendy bar where patrons are served food and drink in beds. But bear in mind: Jimmy only meets You-You after Eunuch tells him a yarn about flight attendants, saying that stewardesses can be sexually harassed twice before there are serious repercussions for their molester. A man sitting behind Eunuch overhears this and tries to grope one of You-You's fellow stewardesses. He immediately gets caught however since Eunuch was, uh, apparently mistaken! So Jimmy decides to meet You-You at the bed bar and checks to see if Eunuch’s new theory (Eunuch insists that You-You is sexually aroused by Jimmy) is true. But he only does this after Eunuch's story about groping women proves to be untrue.

The opposite dynamic is true of Cherie's post-Jimmy search for love. She first tries matchmakers that hook her up with their sons, like the one that misrepresents her son as a Tony Leung look-alike. But then, when another blind date turns out to actually match his mother's description, Cherie winds up stuck fishing her cell phone out of a public toilet while her best friend, now clearly enamored with a Huang Xiaoming look-alike (actually played by Hong Kong actor Huang Xiaoming), hits on Cherie's intended date. So Cherie winds up meeting Sam (Xu Zheng) instead, a guy she later realizes she wants to date because she thinks he is, personality-wise, Jimmy's complete opposite.

But the situation Cherie's in when she dates Sam is not an inversion of when she first started to date Jimmy in Love in a Puff. In fact, it's just like the circumstances that led Jimmy and Cherie to originally date each other. Whereas Jimmy chose to date Cherie knowing that she was already seeing somebody, Cherie is now cheating on Sam with Jimmy while Jimmy cheats on You-You with Cherie. Everybody's telling a different story in Love in the Buff, making it both a knotty and accomplished variation on Puff's meta-textual main theme and a very clever and resonant romantic comedy unto itself. This: this is the China Lion film to see.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Celebrate Chinese New Year with these blockbusters

SIMON SAYS: Celebrate Chinese New Year with these blockbusters

nullThis weekend is Chinese Lunar New Year, a cultural landmark that even some of my Chinese friends needed to be reminded is almost upon us. One way you can tell that the holiday is impending is to look for Chinese films at your local movie theater. In the same way that a crop of big budget Bollywood premieres are perennially released in time for autumn’s Diwali festivities, so too are a number of studio-produced would-be Chinese blockbusters released in time for the new year. But blink and you'll miss ‘em: there are only two Chinese films being released at AMC theater chains.

But hey, that's more than you knew were being released last year, right?

China Lion, a relatively new company dedicated to releasing mostly mainland Chinese (and some Hong Kong) films to American multiplexes, will release All's Well, Ends Well 2012 (unrelated to the Shakespeare play, though it is the seventh film in the romantic comedy series that began in 1992 with a film starring the likes of Stephen Chow and the lamentably deceased Leslie Cheung) next Friday and The Viral Factor this Friday. That may not sound like a three-car pile-up but considering that China Lion has heretofore staggered their releases over a matter of weeks (sometimes even a couple months), it's a sign that the Lunar New Year is here.

More importantly, it's a good time to take stock and see what China Lion has released over the last year. Sadly, while the idea behind the new company is great—introducing both established and new fans of popular Chinese/H.K. films to the latest pop cinema—the results have been mostly underwhelming. Don't expect China Lion to bring you prime-grade films from Wilson Yip, a guy that went from making films with titles like Bio Zombie and Daze Raper to Ip Man and Dragon Tiger Gate. Don't get me wrong, Ip Man and Dragon Tiger Gate are both enjoyable in their own ways, but Magic to Win, Yip's latest and most flavorless film in a while, is totally underwhelming.

If last year's worth of releases is any indication, China Lion films are, at best, immediately likable but largely disposable melodramas. My vote for their most, ahem, outstanding title would be 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, a funky little softcore comedy that was a hit in Hong Kong last year thanks to its endearingly unsound use of 3D technology.null

Sadly, more often than not, China Lion puts out movies like The Viral Factor, a frenetic but totally shallow and mostly inert action movie starring milquetoast stars Nicolas Tse and Jay Chou. Directed by Dante Lam (Fire of Conscience, Beast Stalker), The Viral Factor is a cop drama high on bathos and lackluster action scenes; Lam and co-writers Candy Leung and Wai Lun Ng haven’t met a cliché that they didn’t like. Two estranged brothers, one an amoral thief (Tse) and one a righteous cop (Chou), reunite in order to fight an evil cartel of corrupt policemen-cum-terrorists. Tse and Chou run around and struggle to remind each other of their similarities.

Between lame plot points, Lam delivers typically frenetic but unpolished action scenes that are distinguished largely by their hints of preposterousness. Early on, Chou’s cop gets shot in the brain, and the bullet is still lodged there throughout the film. Still, he persists in running around and fighting bad guys—with an actual bullet lodged in his brainpan. This is impressive even when you compare it to the scene where Tse stumbles out of a hospital after jumping several stories and landing gracelessly on a car below him. If there were more crazy stuff like this throughout The Viral Factor, it’d be worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, such insanity only serves as garnish for Lam’s otherwise flavorless film.

Thankfully, China Lion hasn’t just released disappointing piffle like The Viral Factor. They’ve also released charming piffle like Love in Space, a romantic comedy about three self-centered sisters that struggle to fall in love, and Aftershock, an epic family drama about two siblings that were separated during the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. null

Aftershock is probably the more durable of the two aforementioned titles. Its pseudo-progressive depiction of Chinese history is fairly compelling, if only for the light touch that director Xiaogang Feng (The Banquet, If You Are the One) brings to his film’s series of minor domestic crises. Love in Space does have one of the most charismatic ensemble casts of any of China Lion’s films to date, but, like The Viral Factor, it’s mostly worthwhile for its quirks. (Love in Space is just as cliché-ridden as The Viral Factor, but it’s mostly amiably cheesy.) Aftershock is at least compelling, if sappy, for its core story, which is taken from a novel by Ling Zhang.

So if you want to celebrate the Lunar New Year with a new Chinese flick, fire up your Netflix account and check out Aftershock, now available on Instant Streaming. It’s not a must-see film, but it is as good of a representative of the China Lion brand as you can currently get. Unless, that is, titillating comedies about libidinal enhancement (i.e., donkey penises) are more your thing, in which case you’ll probably want to check out 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy. Either way, come for the shrill melodrama, stay for the sincere cheese.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice< andTime Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comic Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.  Simon reviewed 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstacy here for Press Play.