Lady In Black (1987)

Directed by: Sun Chung
Written by: Law Gam-Fai
Producer: Dean Shek
Starring: Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Kar-Fai, Mak Kit Man, Patricia Chang, Gregory Lee, Phillip Kwok, Shek Kin & Kwan San

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May (Brigitte Lin) embezzles a large sum of money from the company she works at as a favour to her husband Sang (Tony Leung Kar-Fai). What she doesn't know is that he's not planning to return the money in time so that the transaction will go unnoticed at her company. Sang has huge gambling debts and uses up all the money to clear it. Desperate to loan money, the couple travels to Thailand to seek funds from Sang's relative. On the boat back, still without money to cover up the crime, Sang sees his chance to make May the scapegoat when trying to rescue her from falling off the boat. He lets her go and she's presumed to have drowned. Or so he thought as a scarred May soon surfaces in Hong Kong to witness the destruction Sang has left behind him in her family...

Shaw Brother's veteran filmmaker Sun Chung directed his last picture for the studio in 1985 (The Master Strikes Back) before they shut down feature film production and his move to Cinema City resulted in this 1987 revenge drama. Sun had no qualms about exploring the bleaker side of life in movies and Lady In Black is a showcase worth admiring if you fancy watching characters descend into pure hell. The fact that this was also Law Gam-Fai first feature screenplay adds onto that and he would be responsible for writing some of the harshest Category III efforts of the 90s such as Love To Kill and Dr. Lamb.

It's very obvious that coming from such a well equipped studio like Shaw's, Sun Chung wasn't about to let the film look absolutely ordinary. While modern day 80s nowadays doesn't lend itself to exhilarating visuals, Chung does give the frame a good workout in terms of crane work and lightning.

The setup for the revenge plot is actually an involving one or rather the ultimate choices that come with it. It's a family situation that turns out to be built on a foundation of shame and deceit and in the middle is the devoted wife whose devotion basically leads her nowhere. A true and punishing life lesson learned when she's left to drown. The criminal, in this case the husband, is definitely none to root for and Law Gam-Fai's script really lays out perfectly to all the non-rational of the character of Sang, both mentally and what he's prepared to do physically. Mix all this up with the honed visual sense in our director, in particular in how he uses slow-motion which is borderline eerie in its execution, and Lady In Black delivers, mostly in consistent passages but there are a few niggles to talk about.

It is truly the performers that carry the production in a large way and it's when losing Brigitte Lin for way too long that a sense of slow pace sets in. For what isn't much of a complicated scenario, Sun tends to wrongfully stretch out the 90 minutes and what's again really obvious when Lin finally is reintroduced, is how much emotional impact she has on the film. The choices her character has to face, whether to sacrifice all in life to get her revenge is believable. Her entering the picture again also makes the movie hit a terrific stride and comparisons to Phantom Of The Opera becomes unavoidable although I doubt that story seriously jolted the viewers this much. Lin's scarring really leaves one with us as well and further proof of her expressiveness as an actress comes due to the fact that she doesn't have any dialogue for a critical section of the film. Combine the chilling, almost horror-like atmosphere and this really becomes top notch, bleak material for a while.

But it is what takes place outside the main characters that never quite gels and it's due to Sun Chung's rather awful handling of melodrama. True, with Lin, the emotions feel genuine but it's of the hysterical kind and the supporting cast are directed way too over the top to make this thoroughly compelling drama. Even in the relationship between Shek Kin's character and the son of the family, Ming, warmth prevents to shine through, due to their various physical contacts, which is a strange critique to give.

Tony Leung Kar-Fai, an actor who only seems to get better and better with every movie nowadays, does have many traits to handle and his established skill is crucial to make the character stand out, even somewhat. The vile, deceitful and desperate character that is who clearly has come to a point where nothing but fame and fortune matters anymore. And with Sun Chung's directorial choices, it's a rather disturbing portrait to follow at times. Chung also keeps the balance perfectly clear, even in the violent but memorable finale. I.e., no sympathy should ever exists for Sang. One just hope he doesn't drag down too many people with him during his dive into darkness...

Make no mistake about it, Sun Chung's Lady In Black promises early on to take us to hell and back and much hard hitting violence within an at times beautiful frame makes at least the main character arcs worthwhile to sit through. The always game Brigitte Lin logs a fine and sympathetic performance that few in all honesty I think knows about. Sun Chung's only directed twice after this (one being City War, with Ti Lung and Chow Yun-Fat) and it's a roster of bleak work that's gone largely unnoticed until recent years. But with the Shaw Brother's catalogue becoming available and these budget releases, one doesn't have to look as hard anymore thankfully.

The DVD:

The cover above shows a redesign compared to what was initially pressed by Deltamac. It does speak more to the actual mood of the film now but I could've lived without the cheesy tagline...

The film is presented in a slightly overmatted 1.88:1 aspect ratio approximately. Print is moderately worn and colours are reasonable. Black levels are fair and really what you have come to expect from older, non-remastered titles such as this.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 track sounds clear in terms of effects and dialogue. A Mandarin 2.0 dub is also included.

The English subtitles has quite a few grammar errors but generally the intent of the translation comes through. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. There are no extras.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson