The Mistress (1999)

Directed by: Crystal Kwok
Written by: Crystal Kwok & Susan Chan
Producers: Crystal Kwok, Lawrence Lau & Fiona Lee
Starring: Jacqueline Peng, Ray Lui, Vicky Chen, Moses Chan, Susan Chan, Crystal Kwok & Lawrence Lau

It's both unexpected and yet not that out of all people Crystal Kwok would debut as director with a Category III rated drama concerning the sexual mind of a woman. Cutesy presences in such films as The Master, Four Loves and Doctor Vampire, knowing the diversity of profiles within Asian cinema, for such ones to jump between contrasting work or walks of life shouldn't raise any eyebrows. Having received an assistant directing credit on Sylvia Chang's Mary From Beijing, Kwok's The Mistress resides outside of the mainstream, specifically lensed independently but from that realm of Hong Kong cinema, late 1990s proved to give us noteworthy efforts. Around this time, Fruit Chan made his 1997 trilogy (1*), Slow Fade by Daniel Chan came out to acclaim and now Crystal's cinematic contribution can stand up and take a proud bow.

Alex (Jacqueline Peng) is assigned the job of teaching English to businessman Henry's (Ray Lui - To Be Number One) Mainland mistress Michelle (Vicky Chen). A ditsy woman, Michelle immerses Alex into her world, including shopping, sleazy nightclubs and by opening this door, she gets Alex's emotions stirred by Henry...

Placing us into bizarro world from the opening frames as we're in a dreamy lit forest only to be lead into a stressful urban setting, Crystal Kwok has already jolted the senses of the viewer in an intriguing way. Soon setting up the triangle where there's drama to be had but also breezy comedy and quirky visuals, much is tricky in Kwok's frame in a very welcome way as she explores tangents that we think are going to be predominant but they are only stepping stones for the upcoming main character ingredient.

You would think the subject matter of the role and game of being a mistress coupled with the Category III rating that the film would structure itself like an explicit bonk-a-thon. Oh there's sex to be had but not much nudity comes with Kwok's package and all the "smut" is dressed in in some kind of class but more importantly it's all critical for the journey of Jacqueline Peng's character. She if anything is the tricky character as we're not quite sure if she's a simple, introvert daydreamer, a manipulator or a frail mind that takes refuge in unobtainable dreams and an unobtainable reality. Does she sink willingly or unwillingly into the sleazy, perverse world that is almost part of daily life for these people? It's a minor surprise to see what Kwok has in store for Alex but what can be said about her journey is that Kwok balances arthouse sensibilities with an atmospheric, low-key narrative for the viewer to entangle.

Sure the content is attention grabbing in itself but Kwok understands her matters well and her audience so she'll know certain guys will sit through titillation AND subtle character depth. That depth is best displayed through Alex's visualized concrete and abstract subconscious. A dangerous venture towards pretentiousness, Kwok strikes the balance admirably well as she's using various mediums across the fading in and out of reality for Alex, never missing her beats dealing with where the mind is at now. A maturity is on display, not a rookie filmmaker trying to shock a film community by being all over the place visually.

Cast-wise, Kwok has seemingly gathered some American or Canadian-Chinese unknown actors, hoping that unfamiliarity will make The Mistress an immersing work. Largely, it's a successful venture, starting with lead Jacqueline Peng who has quite a challenge as the character is defined anew all throughout. For all the rough acting that goes on, particularly the English language delivery, Kwok directs Peng with an assurance how to create a workable act and the impact of the film is very much due to Peng's presence. Vicky Chen seems to be a prime candidate for another Shu Qi at her more annoying best but I like how Kwok sticks with the grating act only to reward us in the latter, telling and critical aspects of the film. Veteran Ray Lui certainly has no flattering role at all, despite Henry never displaying signs of external evil. He's a player, demanding the female participants to play the game which of course makes him an asshole overall but Lui taps nicely into the charm Henry possesses. The charm that gets players into the game. Acclaimed director (2*) and co-producer Lawrence Lau appears in a supporting role.

Few female Hong Kong directors are on the map and Crystal Kwok has not as of yet followed up her fine debut here. It would be a shame if she didn't because The Mistress shows a busy work that fades in and out of its moods along with the viewer in a compelling way. For sure not totally uplifting but there's a playful aura to Kwok's frame as well as a mature nature where rough acting kind of is acceptable. It makes an impact and sure as hell counts as valid, explicit cinema.

The DVD:

Universe presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 approximately. Free of wear and even though lensed on a modest budget, transfer registers only fair at best concerning colours and sharpness.

The film was shot using Cantonese, Mandarin and English language and to get to the desired track, choose the Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 option. The front stage presents nice usage of score and dialogue is as clear as it can be as clearly the original recording is at times rough. A Mandarin 2.0 dub is also included.

The English subtitles has a few errors and inserts the words End Double at points where there's no corresponding dialogue. Otherwise, the translation flows well. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Extras are limited to a single, basic Star File for Ray Lui and trailers for The Mistress, Sunshine Cops, Super Car Criminals and My Name Is Nobody.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) The award winning trio of films consisting of Made In Hong Kong, The Longest Summer and Little Cheung. The defining works of Fruit Chan.

(2) Filmography includes Gangs, Spacked Out and Gimme Gimme.