Never Too Late To Repent (1979)

Directed by: Tsai Yang-Ming
Written by:
Chu Yen-Ping
Ma Hong-Yong
Ma Sha, Liang Hsiu-Shen, Elsa Yeung, Wang Mo-Chou & Eagle Lee

Also known as The First Error Step and representing an origin point of sorts of an intense, dark but temporary trend in Taiwanese cinema. As dubbed by documentary filmmaker Hou Chi-Jan, these were the ‘Taiwan Black Movies’. From the late 70s and a few years into the 80s, the cinema climate of the kung fu movie, Wuxia pian and melodrama was partially pushed aside and the gear was shifted into an unpredictable parade of violence, social issues and exploitation that was turning cinema into an outlet for expression of then turbulent times. Mixing rarely seen on screen aspects such as prostituion, imprisonment, organized crime, victimization of women (also leading to string of female revenge films such as On The Society File of Shanghai and The Lady Avenger), Taiwan itself was in a turbulent place with political power shifts, the U.S. ended its relations with Taiwan, political opposition to the Nationalist party triggered violence and murders of opponent’s families and with a news cycle dominated by reports of said violence, filmmaker intentions and opportunities were born. Designed to say something and to reflect ongoing fear, the social realist film leading into female revenge films took shape based on a dire reality and The First Error Step was at the front of the queue. (1*)

Based on the life story of its lead actor Ma Sha (real name Liu Jin-Zhen and played initially as an 18 year old by Eagle Lee), his teens were dominated by criminal activity and even in the midst of serving a 6 month prison sentence for theft, he hatched an escape plan that ultimately failed. Eventually created a reputation for himself as an extravagant criminal living the pimp lifestyle, at one point he did express repentance in a letter and a desire to find his father and the media eventually got wind of this emotional hook. This was around 1969 but as the decade turned to the 1970s, Ma Sha’s repent was not strong enough to make him change lanes into lawful. However he did think the idea of his story would make for a bestseller after becoming aware of a successful book about handicapped law graduate Zhang Feng-Xi and that made Liu want to emulate the feel, structure and write about his own life. No publisher took the bait, one journalist did but the 3-part article did not make an impact. So Ma Sha went back to the drawing board and had his business associates hire university scholars to re-write the book. They ended up with four versions called The First Error Step, including one variation that was made more sexy and melodramatic. Ma Sha’s story now had the ingredients consisting of a low life criminal turned pimp turned sincerely repentful man.

All of a sudden there was a hook and myth as well as support for his plight and film companies started to make offers to adapt the story. However not everyone was buying what Ma Sha was selling. Mentioned Zhang Feng-Xi caught wind of the book’s success and voiced copyright dispute concerns. Reportedly his camp did get in on the movie negotiations to some extent and the 1979 film Never Too Late To Repent was produced. Written by Chu Yen-Ping (director of Golden Queen’s Commando and Island Of Fire) and helmed by genre veteran Tsai Yang-Ming (The Country Of Beauties, Woman Revenger, Thou Shall Not Kill ... But Once), a milestone in the Taiwan social realist wave was born. Its success and impact of lead Ma Sha triggered a busy movie career (fans of the films of IFD will know him under the credited name Tattooer Ma). However the conflict over the book was still brewing as it was deemed Ma Sha had emulated Zhang Feng-Xi’s book to a very noticeable degree and the movie therefore was being scrutinized since the true story felt fabricated to a degree. It apparently became clear and official that the repent in question wasn’t quite sincere and the public image of Ma Sha shattered. Said busy film career still followed but also a continual turbulent life involving adultery, possession of drugs, and an apperance in a hardcore porn movie (with a body double doing the lower body work). As late as 2000, Ma Sha was sentenced to 2 years in prison for a string of robberies. Hardly reformed. (2*)

But the movie exists based on the knowledge of everyone involved at the time so they made the sincere story about Ma Sha’s parents abandoning him, his involvement and rise as a pimp, imprisonment, escape and failed evading of police. Ma Sha eventually gets reformed military-style and tries to go straight but it’s not without scrutiny or in his words ‘bad luck’ as no one wants a criminal in the workplace. But for an audience knowing the full extent of the story decades later, with that knowledge of fabrication and ultimately a reduced sense of sincerity, how can the movie even matter? Well, the movie people take over and hopefully your personal interest in cinema history and while not through and through sophisticated, Never Too Late To Repent has enough gripping and intense content to get by. And earns status as a first of sorts. 

Because Ma Sha is undeniably a cinematic image. A stoic actor but keeping rage and emotional beats reeled in to an effective degree, he looks and acts the part and would be a reason for moviegoing audiences feeling this story should be followed through on. It’s easy to feel for an uneducated man, a brute, a child even who was let go early and while Tsai Yang-Ming isn’t subtle depicting the bad environments and crowd Ma Sha surrounds himself with (at 13 a lookout at a brothel, at 18 he had killed someone), the ambience, tone and visuals produces gritty realism that's fairly immersing.  Especially effective, but it’s a risky proposition, of keeping the shady environments nearly pitch black except for the splashes of red neon light of the brothel makes this anything but compelling as a lifestyle. Something that doesn’t feel crafted for cinematic effect all of a sudden showed it has cinematic effect. True for the extended sections in prison as well, Never Too Late To Repent might have goodwill but a fast tracked narrative doesn’t fully allow for emotional immersion on an elite scale. It does mean we get to our destination quickly and through varied tools.

Especially true for the reformation part of the film where Ma Sha gets the right amount of tough love, encouragement and display of heart by Liang Hsiu-Hsien's military officer, following the story in a well paced package with only fair but admirable immersion should suit you fine. Knowing the visuals, tone and ambience was new for Taiwanese cinema but this amount of violence and social realism eventually conjures up some sympathy for at least the times Ma Sha is trying and that means the actor is also put through the paces. Making this his most versatile performance. A cinematic trend broke and while Never Too Late To Repent would essentially be invalidated thanks to its subject's dubious ways, it stands as a document of change. Mainly for cinema, for the duration we apply that to Ma Sha as well and then move on to the rest of the pieces that made up the Taiwanese black movies. The origin point however is worthy. Even mandatory.


(1*) As short of a period it was and despite dealing in social issues, once local demand was detected movies were quickly greenlit based on star, outline and then a short production period followed (that included writing scripts on the spot and even gangsters got involved in productions to an extent and showed muscle when it came to prioritizing their movies. Violence was not uncommon in and around filming and the studios). The period rarely gets the mention it deserves based on a few factors. Lack of availability being one but this was not classy filmmaking. Because when did female revenge and rape-revenge get looked at with respect in critics eyes and it all came to an end as well. A dead end that then transitioned into the New Taiwan Cinema Era with the emergence of young directors such as Edward Yang and depictions of natural, realistic life.

(2*) My thanks to Sylvia Rodriguez for providing this research.