Revenge: A Love Story from director Wong Ching Po (Jiang Hu, Mob Sister) reaches back into the past to Hong Kong’s grisly Cat-III action pics, where buckets of blood and more than a touch of sadism were de rigueur. Wong adds a modern sensibility to the mix, though, bringing good production values and some technical sophistication to the picture… but is that enough to elevate it beyond exploitation territory?
Revenge gets right to the point in the first few scenes, with a chillingly violent opening: we’re shown an horrific pair of murders committed by a quiet, blank-faced young man. Both victims are pregnant women, their unborn children removed from their bellies by their assailant. They’re soon revealed to be the wives of police officers, and the resultant manhunt rather surprisingly nets the culprit as he makes a dash for it. Only once he’s in custody do the filmmakers begin to backfill the story, teasing out the killer’s reasons for his crimes.
The young man, we learn, is Kit (Juno Mak), a steamed bun seller from a small village with a simple, easy-going demeanour. He’s only got eyes for Wing (Sola Aoi), an innocent schoolgirl — she’s quiet and perhaps mentally challenged (as some of the other characters remark), though this might have been simply a way to minimise Japanese adult film actress Aoi’s Cantonese dialogue. I’m not going to unravel the story any further from here: suffice it to say that something shocking happens to Wing one night, and it’s this that galvanises Kit from village idiot to vengeful killing machine.
I’m no stranger to films in which revenge is the engine that drives the story: cinema is full of them, Asian genre cinema in particular, from Lady Snowblood to Johnnie To’s simply-titled Vengeance. All the good ones — and I include those two in that set — provide a protagonist the audience can connect to and sympathise with, whether hero or anti-hero. By amping up the violence and re-ordering the narrative so that the story begins with an act of seemingly unjustified brutality, before we even know Kit and Wing, Revenge makes its lead difficult to care about. The violence really is confronting, too — the film is Category III in Hong Kong and R-18+ here in Oz, and it’s telling that the filmmakers cast Sola Aoi once they couldn’t find a local actress willing to touch the role.
Juno Mak (who’s also credited for the original story) and Sola Aoi give reasonable, if under-written, performances as the leads; neither has a great deal of dialogue or a particularly complex character to get across. Rounding out the cast are old hands from HK action film: Chin Siu Ho, Ken Lo, Tony Ho and a particularly menacing Anthony Lau Wing. More compelling than the characters is the direction; the last film I saw from Wong Ching Po was 2004’s Jiang Hu, and Revenge has feels a lot more assured. Wong uses unusual camera angles and claustrophobic sets here to inject a sort of creeping horror to the film, particularly early on.
Nonetheless, I felt that creepy wasn’t quite enough, and that more substance to go with the style on display (and justify the violence!) would have made Revenge: A Love Story a far more enjoyable film.