The critical response to Wong Ching Po’s Revenge: A Love Story has been curiously polarising. It garnered one star reviews in mainstream papers such as the The Guardian yet won praise and even award nominations at festivals from Moscow to Puchon and the US. To some it’s a Category III exploitation film that’s too arty for its own good, to others it’s a weighty meditation on love, hate and revenge. Now that Terror-Cotta Distribution have made Revenge: A Love Story available for the first time in the UK we’ll be able to see for ourselves which side of the divide represents the film best.
This is a film that undoubtedly works best the less you know going in, so I’m not going to a write a lot about the plot details. What it’s fairly safe to say is that the film centres on a young man who has been sought by the police for the brutal murder of pregnant women along with their unborn children and husbands. He is eventually apprehended by the police after unsuccessfully trying to run away from them but has to be let go thanks to another horrific act that seems to exonerate him. The police are reluctant to release him because they know that he’s their man. How they know this will shortly be explained but suffice to say it isn’t something they can explain to their boss to have the man in question retained in custody. Someone is taking revenge for the worst kind of crime in the worst possible way. Others are trying to protect their own through a mistaken sense of loyalty, duty and honour. Who or what will win out remains to be seen but everyone’s a loser in this terrible game of retribution.
You can’t deny that Revenge: A Love Story is a very well directed film. Its high production values add to a well executed aesthetic that perfectly presents the murkiness of its setting. The film also has some very interesting directorial flourishes that lift it well above the norm. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t have is that sense of intensity or “cosmic justice” that you find in the best revenge thrillers. The story has been divided into chapters, with each book ended by a short poem about the nature of revenge, often with religious overtones. This sense of something bigger at work - the concept the hand of fate as something dark and inescapable - never really takes hold. Although Wong Ching Po has largely succeeded in creating an atmospheric background, weaknesses in the script and story prevent it from penetrating deep enough or proving dark enough to become truly captivating.
Without giving too much away, the audience is asked to accept a lot of story elements without really questioning them. Although the performances are very accomplished the characters often feel underdeveloped or even a little two dimensional. The bad guys are generic bad guys who don’t really have any other characteristics aside from their villainy. The one exception would be the fundamentally decent person whose sin is failing to stop the bad goings on, but even he has only one other characteristic, that being loyalty to his boss. Similarly, we are asked to take the central love story at face value without really being given time to invest in it. Juno Mak’s lonely bun seller and Sola Aoi’s silent high school girl share only the most fleeting of glances before being plunged into this nightmare plot. It may be the purest of loves, but the audience just has to accept that these two are star-crossed without being presented with very much evidence of it. Consequently the love story element loses a lot of its credibility which only further undermines the central thread of the film.
Why the killer chooses exactly this form of revenge isn’t really made clear during the course of the film. There isn’t any concrete reason given for why he decides to murder women by tearing out their unborn children which is, you will have to admit, a fairly odd way to go about things. As he also kills the husbands (seemingly first) you have to wonder exactly what the point of his revenge is, who is it directed against? The film doesn’t really seem to interest itself in the destructive power of an obsessive need for vengeance, or at least not to the extent you feel it might want to, though it does offer the idea that perhaps the best revenge lies in forgiveness. In his notes, the director suggests he wants to explore the depths to which a state of total hatred can reduce someone. I’m not sure the film fully conveys this idea in a coherent way - pure hate is the only reason we are left with to explain any of this but ultimately the film fails to make it do so.
Revenge: A Love Story is not without merit. It’s a very well directed film; even if in places it begins to feel a little pretentious it is genuinely thrilling for a lot of its running time. However, it also fails to have the kind of impact it feels as if it would like to have. The film begins to lose momentum towards the end and the ambiguous final scene feels like a step too far. That said the film does a have a few things to recommend it - the strong central performance of Juno Mak for one, and its impressive directorial elements for another. A difficult film that falls short of its own expectations, Revenge: A Love Story may prove an unsatisfying experience but its relative strengths still make it a more than interesting proposition.