The Woman Of Wrath (1986)

Directed by: Tsang Jong-Cheung
Written by: Wu Nien-Jen
Producer: Hsu Feng
Starring: Pat Ha, Pai Ying, Grace Chen, Yang Li-Yin & Wu Min

In 1986, Pat Ha had already made a name for herself as an actress willing to go down daring roads. The erotic drama An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty and My Name Ain't Suzie, both at Shaw Brothers showcased that and this rural Taiwanese drama becomes another bold move deserving of acclaim. A co-production between D & B and Tomson Films, from the Taiwanese side it also includes unexpected veterans from the King Hu filmmaking camp. Female lead of A Touch Of Zen Hsu Feng produces while actor Pai Ying (the eunuch from Dragon Inn) co-stars and while both the original poster and title suggest a trashy exploitation vehicle, director Tsang Jong-Cheung quickly sets a stage of welcome subtlety. It's punishing stuff told very quietly.

Pat Ha is Ah-Shih who is married off to a butcher (Pai Ying) but the relationship is plagued by rape and abuse. The fellow women in the village initially seem like helpful support throughout all this but a chilling turn of loyalties leaves Ah-Shih all alone in her fight...

Working from Ang Li's (not to be confused with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee) novel 'Sha Fu' (which is also the Chinese title of the film), the harsh point brought up is that of oppression transferring from one force to another. The setting is the Japanese occupation of Taiwan during World War II and unable to vent any kind of frustration towards rulers, the lowly people take it out on the weak and their own. It's a disturbing portrait but not so much because director Tsang presents graphic violence in the obvious places (the shots inside the butchery contains the most grisly images) but because of the stance taken by Ah Shih's fellow villagers as they think her screams and tears echoing throughout the village are ones of pleasure. The spiral is obviously going downwards towards some form of violent act therefore and it's easy to understand and respect why director Tsang chooses not to give us any answers. But it isn't pointless abuse and revenge and we remain interested in said spiral, the portrait of a woman like Ah-Shih (and her mother) being inflicted with sin and a poor fate and it's this acceptance of how things naturally are that are amongst the most affecting parts of The Woman Of Wrath.

The glimpses at more pleasant rural life, such as villagers coming together for The Ghost Festival also reveals layers in the angry man Pai Ying plays. Quick to dismiss it but also spiritual in private, the performance is quite remarkable as he wanders between rage, indifference, curiosity and sadness. With the little quick bursts of desire to understand his world rather than letting anger and physical instincts overcome him being handled very well by the veteran. The physical scenes between him and Pat Ha are matter of fact and well played, containing the harsh treatment the story dictates but it's in the small touches, gestures, looks that predicts what's coming, the fear in Ah-Shih's eyes and the second half cranks this to uncomfortable, out of control levels. Yet director Tsang rarely goes for verbal character exposition but instead lets physicality reveal character depth and this is neither too small of a choice or too arty. It's simply quite a brilliant case of show, don't tell. It may be a mild storytelling touch but it's the impact of a sledgehammer for the characters.

It's a realistic snapshot of abuse, the content is of course distressing but as art, The Woman Of Wrath registers high thanks to a mesmerizing performance by Pat Ha, haunting use of score and cinematography that captures the run down village setting in tandem with the downbeat drama. As hard as it is on the eyes, it's a small masterpiece.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson