Winner of multiple awards including Best Director and Direction at the 33rd Moscow International Film Festival and Best Actor for Juno Mak at 15th Puchon Film Festival, this dark and bloody Hong Kong thriller aims to tell the killer’s side of the story. While these awards are well deserved viewers who have seen recent South Korean serial killer films will find little new here however the film is less interested in forging new ground within the horror genre and more concerned with charting the all-consuming desire for revenge and this is where it succeeds.
Police are investigating a serial killer who targets pregnant women. The media have labelled him ‘The Dissector’ and are running sensationalist headlines such as “Pregnant woman dissected alive, husband put to death in 100 degrees boiling water”. After investigating the scene of a murder two detectives, Jeff (Chin Siu Ho) and Kwok Wah (Tony Ho) decide to comb the area and soon find a known suspect, Chan Kit (Juno Mak), and bring him in for questioning. Chan Kit remains silent throughout the physically brutal interrogation and is released without charge. If Chan Kit is not the killer, then who is? Jeff and Kwok Wah find themselves caught in a deadly investigation.
To call this a horror film is a stretch. Although it utilises elements of the horror genre and never shrinks from offering brutality it feels tame compared to some of the recent offerings from other regions. Indeed what the film bears out is an investigation of revenge powered by a strong central performance from Juno Mak.
The film opens with a low-key scene but death soon intrudes with a simple but long drawn out strangulation. The entire thing is captured in an audacious long shot with a serene looking Juno Mak hanging onto his victim who writhes about on the floor. From here on in there are some disturbing images but what is more interesting is the developing story which is not so much a whodunit but a why does he do it. Then an even bigger question arises which is why do the police harbour such strong certainty that Chan Kit is the villain and where does revenge come into the story.
Performances in this part are pitched at shrill and can seem faintly ridiculous especially as blood and police regulations are liberally shed but the film’s plot enters a flashback which helps to elucidate the story but exposes weaknesses in the film’s script.
The plot structure works because the non-linear nature of it hooks the viewer’s attention and skilfully disorientates them as they try to understand the story. Everything else about the script lacks subtlety and detail and it never rises above functional as characters are turned into simple binary opposites and the plot takes precedence.
Even more problematic was Sola Aoi’s character, the lead female role with a decent amount of screen time. Anyone hoping that the Japanese adult video star will get to exercise her acting abilities will be in for a disappointment as she spends most of her screen time as a ridiculously passive doll and that is when she isn’t called upon to shed her clothes as the camera fetishizes her. This is nothing new to horror but there is the suspicion that the director’s motives were salacious. The backstory is soon dispensed with and character motivation is revealed. Despite weak characterisation and a distaste for the way Aoi was treated the examination of vengeance continues apace and with the resumption of the police investigation I found I was caught up by the film’s sense of narrative propulsion which grows much more exciting as deaths become much more stylish and audacious with a number of cool face-offs and reversals.
The direction is restrained but entertaining with smart framing and varying camera angles that show the changing fortunes of characters and lots of slow motion for visually stylish chases. It is always visually entertaining good looking despite the muted colour-palette with many exterior locations holding a sort of faded beauty. When it proceeds towards the ending the stark visuals become even more compelling and act as an arena for a shocking finale that sets up an end coda that is beautiful pay-off, one spot of beauty after so much misery.
The film succeeds at being different from the normal output of Hong Kong and it thoroughly explores the ideas of revenge. While I felt the script was held together by an interesting plot the writing suffered from a certain blandness that robbed the characters of substance. Sola Aoi was under-utilised and the other actors get away with broadly sketching their characters but as the fim continued I overcame my reservations. A strong central performance from Juno Mak was the highlight as he makes a big impact as a man out for revenge. Despite a few weak moments where his decisions seemed ridiculous I found him convincing as a man so consumed by revenge that he goes to extreme lengths to exact it.
This is a dark trip that I found interesting in some places and disturbing in others. It sets itself an interesting question and answers it as stylishly as possible.
Revenge: A Love Story
Release Date: 9th January 2012
Running Time: 91 mins
Director: Wong Ching Po
Writer: Wong Ching Po
Starring: Juno Mak, Sola Aoi, Chin Siu Ho, Tony Ho Wah Chiu