Movies such as Thailand‘s “Jan Dara” and Robert Ketchum’s “The Girl Next Door” are films that have stories that are so disquieting and so horrible that one can argue that these stories needn’t be told. Hong Kong Cinema hasn’t really come up with such a premise in recent years that I am at odds whether I should be pleased or not that director Dennis Law has decided to undertake such a film. “A Very Short Life” is one such film, it is a very disturbing at its core, not because of any graphic displays of violence and brutality but rather it explores a very sensitive issue about child abuse, its effects and its consequences. Dennis Law may have a few misfires (such as Fatal Move) under his belt but he does exhibit great intentions in the production of this film. The film is a fictional tale but based on truths that happens in Hong Kong.
While attending a party, Dennis (one of the characters is based on the director, played by Eddie Cheung) strikes a conversation with female Inspector Lam as she recounts the details to a recent case she was involved in. Apparently, child molestation cases are a hit in a party in Hong Kong and everyone is just so interested in hearing details of such a case. The case is about the supposed accidental killing of a child named Heiyi by her own mother. Becky Lee (Leila Kong) had freely admitted her crime but assistant commissioner Josephine Wong (Maggie Shiu) isn’t satisfied; she believes that the mother knew all along that her daughter was also being sexually abused by her lover (played by Samuel Pang), and for that she must serve a longer prison sentence. This leads to an extended interrogation sequence where Wong and her tough female subordinates subject the lovely Becky Lee to physical and mental torture, so she may admit that she knew about her lover’s despicable conduct that leads her into attempting suicide. We can all agree that Becky knew about the sexual abuses that occurred, the question is why did she tolerate it? What is this seemingly defenseless young mother hiding?
Director Dennis Law isn’t really that great a storyteller but no one can deny that he is one of the few remaining Hong Kong directors who tries to steer clear of China-friendly films and is able to give his audience some Category III films (equivalent to NC-17 in the U.S.). Law manages to somewhat restrain his usual excesses in filmmaking and addresses the taboos of child molestation with a sense of sensitivity. Thankfully, the scenes of child abuse are merely hinted and the NC-17 rating is directed more to its dialogue, the antagonists, its torture sequences and to its sensitive theme. This is a melodrama but believe me, it has strong elements of psychological horror within its premise. “A Very Short Life” explores the horrors, the effects and consequences of child abuse; Before, During and After the crime is committed.
Becky Lee is one disturbed woman and Commissioner Wong is one tough cop. The screenplay by Dennis Law does expose the parallels between the two characters. Josephine Wong is a strong woman who had faced a similar problem with her former husband when he tried to rape their daughter Joey (Crystal Cheung). Wong faced the problem head on and put her monstrous husband to prison. This fact may be the cause as to why she is so determined to nail Becky Lee, she believes that a mother must protect her child even if it is from the man she loves. Becky Lee is a woman who had been abused by her father in the past, duped by former lovers into thinking that she needs a man to take care of her. Her phrase “A Woman is born to give her body to men” sums up her character. This is a pitiable woman who has convinced herself that these thing are routine and an acceptable part of life.
For a film like this to succeed, the performances have to be strong and convincing. Maggie Shiu channels her inner “Jack Bauer”, a character very similar to the one she played in “Eye in the Sky” (which I will review much later). Leila Kong plays both the victim and the antagonist; she becomes more sympathetic as the film went on, I was really moved as to how such a woman can withstand such humiliation and pain. I am not spoiling anything with the film’s proceedings, this is a film built on its characters, and offers little surprises. The film’s reward is through its sensitive journey of which may prove also its weakness.
Granted the film is quite predictable, with its style of narration in the beginning pretty much kills most of its shock value. Dennis Law does have great intentions in the making of this film but his skill of editing and storytelling is lacking. The little plot device with Inspector Lam’s narration kills most of the film’s suspense since we know Becky Lee knew about the abuses from the get-go. Also, much like Michael Bay, Law still has a knack for overstretching a few scenes; such as the suicide attempt and the mental torture. What was meant to shock and disturb was overplayed a tad, the scenes proved much longer than they should have been played out. There is some gore and CGI blood, but granted, Law is not the type of filmmaker who can make these things work. The film just wasn’t efficient enough to play on its aces and know when to restrain itself. Law does practice some restraint thankfully with the molestation scenes.
The film had a lot of things going for it, but sadly Law isn’t the supreme storyteller we sure wished he was; since he does have great intentions in his filmmaking. Despite some definite flaws in its direction, “A Very Short Life” does have some excellent performances. Maggie Shiu is commanding and likable as the bitchy commissioner and Leila Kong fulfills the demands of her role, even if most of her scenes can be quite difficult. I simply felt compassion when I witnessed Becky being forced by the police to watch her child get molested in a video recording; Leila Kong’s role is pretty demanding and she earns brownie points for pulling it off. One thing, director Law did admirably is the fact that he managed to tell a shocking story without being exploitive. The subject of child abuse is certainly taboo to some, but the film has very good intentions. Let’s NOT hide under a rock, a very REAL horror of this kind may be occurring just close by.