The First Time Is The Last Time (1989)

Directed by: Raymond Leung
Written by: Yue Faan
Producer: Raymond Leung & Leung Ming
Starring: Carrie Ng, Season Ma, Andy Dai, Law Yiu Hung, Ngai Suet, Peter Ngor, Meg Lam & Andy Lau

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1990:
Best Actress (Carrie Ng)
Best Supporting Actress (Meg Lam)
Best Editing (Wong Chi-Hung)

Taking the blame for triad boyfriend Robert's drugs possession charge, Ma Yuk Fung (Season Ma - Silent Love) is asked by Robert to look up a woman in prison called Winnie (Carrie Ng). She finds out Winnie spends most of her time isolated due to constantly getting into fights but does strike up a comrade bit by bit as Winnie reveals the reason she ended up with permanent facial scarring. Also at hand is carefree, high spirited and pregnant prisoner preferring to be known only by her number 5354 (Meg Lam - Chatter Street Killer)...

Not to be confused with Scarred Memory director Raymond Leung (but did you really mix them up?), The First Time Is The Last Time, despite coming from a heavy duty movie year in quantity alone from Hong Kong cinema, managed to earn three respectable nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Merely co-starring Andy Lau (who probably had to shoot multiple films to achieve the 15+ entry in the 1989 section of his filmography), Raymond Leung instead goes to prison with females, planting himself in the genre that also includes notables such as Prison On Fire and Women's Prison. Dangerously over-pessimistic and in need of featuring the requisite, there's still some actual writing here (relying much on the fact that a plot synopsis shouldn't go to great lengths) that manifests itself fairly well through the female performers.

Characters in writer Yue Faan's vision are rolled around in a foul gob before being spit out over and over again so it's no surprise no one really is having an easy time here. Male as well as female characters are treated seriously uncool and unfair, merely achieving minor light that obviously fast has to be crushed by that big Monty Python sized foot, figuratively. No it's not funny or nice and for the most part not particularly riveting either. Season Ma's Yuk Fung (who also narrates so that we all know exactly what's about believing in subtlety instead, Mr. Director?) early on shows signs of weakness and wrongful devotion, something that gets shoved in the background in favour of the real star of this show: Carrie Ng's portrayal of Winnie (character being nicknamed Crazy Bitch).

Scarred and having had hope crushed more times than any human being can withstand, through her we get flashbacks of Winnie as a hostess being force-fed urine, taking drugs and striking up a romance with a triad hoodlum (Andy Lau). Events obviously ended on a sour note as evident by her deterioration in jail as well as her violent streak and director Leung up to a point isn't really out to surprise cinematically when telling Winnie's story. Sure the stylistic choices rank as rather unconventional for a Hong Kong movie (meaning someone tries to shake things up, most notably during a triad confrontation scene that plays out in stills and cuts, not dialogue) but there will be a while before Carrie Ng's devotion actually begins to pay off.

Getting mileage out of the fact that one of the cinematographers is Andrew Lau, Leung's scenes at the prison are sometimes eerily atmospheric and nightmarish via use of blue light (and grain accompanying the dvd transfer). Here Leung's gritty bursts of hard hitting violence sometimes takes a starring role to fine effect but remember we were talking of devotion eventually getting its rewards? These gritty bits therefore pass with us still knowing nothing but the fact that this is a standard, female oriented Prison On Fire. And that's not enough. However Raymond Leung slowly and even late gets audience acceptance for this pessimism, gluing us firmly to the seat as the final events of Winnie's backstory plays out and how Yuk Fung's story connects to all this. It's not surprising and despite laying it on thick dialogue wise about how doomed some of us are, Leung shows a focus towards Carrie Ng's character plight that translates into cinematic affection. Intense melodrama expectedly reigns but Ng commands the screen with that mentioned work put in and even the title The First Time Is The Last Time begins taking on philosophical meaning when combining the arcs of Winne and Yuk Fung.

Pushing Andy Lau's appearance to the forefront meant some revenues but the awards juries were not on crack for once (as opposed to today where their choices constantly makes you believe they ARE!) and gave the nods to the most memorable actresses on screen, including Meg Lam in what basically is the Chow Yun-Fat role from Prison On Fire. With plentiful prison atmosphere to go around, albeit sporadically, The First Time Is The Last Time walks familiar ground largely to no particular stunning effect, merely seeking attention in the drama and violence-department. Stick around, and it's not that difficult to do so, and the underrated Carrie Ng will have you believe that there is cinema to be made from a beforehand completely doomed character arc. That's not to say all's well end's well and certainly not without some lazy or sloppy directorial behaviour but it's nice to see Hong Kong assembly line cinema shine a little bit.

The DVD:

Mei Ah presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with anamorphic enhancement. Now seemingly having completely cancelled their remastering program (although re-packaging already released films in box sets has surfaced), The First Time Is The Last Time is at the time of writing one of the last titles to come out of it. The source material reveals heavier damage at select points as well as fairly heavy grain throughout but colours and sharpness ranks as sufficient for the movie at hand.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track sounds perfectly clear with only some minor distortion as sole detraction. A Mandarin 2.0 selection is also available.

The English subtitles goes "Engrish" on us a few times but keeps an above average level to the grammar and spelling otherwise. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. Prior versions had been plagued by the fact that the subtitles did not appear for approximately the remaining 9 minutes of the film. Mei Ah redeems this almost but the voice over during the end credits does not get translated unfortunately.

The Special Features section contains the anamorphically enhanced trailer and Mei Ah's empty Databank (a cast & crew listing and a plot synopsis screen isn't content per say).

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson