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Goddess of Mercy

Vicki Zhao and Nicholas Tse in Goddess of Mercy.
AKA: Jade Goddess
AKA: Jade Goddess of Mercy
Year: 2004
Director: Ann Hui On-Wah
Writer: Ivy Ho, Hai Yan (original story)
Cast: Vicki Zhao Wei, Nicholas Tse Ting-Fung, Liu Yunlong, Sun Haiying, Chen Jianbin
The Skinny: Ann Hui's latest film is an interesting potboiler/character drama that's probably too commercial for the art house crowd and too arty for commercial audiences. At the same time, it's an involving thriller told in Hui's assured, hands-off style. Viewers with patience may find this an interesting, though somewhat slight film.
by Kozo:

     Ann Hui's Goddess of Mercy is a difficult film to pin down. While the plot screams routine suspense thriller, the slow, opaque storytelling and generous focus on star Vicki Zhao would seem to indicate a female character study along the lines of Hui's more personal films. On the other hand, having Nicholas Tse appear as a charismatic, ill-fated drug smuggler would appear to be large concession to the commercial powers that be—except his role will likely turn off most of his teenybopper fanbase. This juxtaposition of commercial and artistic elements is what makes Goddess of Mercy intriguing—and ultimately only partly successful. While an entertaining and interesting enough thriller, the film doesn't truly commit in either an artistic or commercial direction, and thus comes off as rather moot. The ride isn't half-bad, though.
     Vicki Zhao stars as An Xin, who we first meet as a menial employee of a Beijing martial arts school. She attracts the attention of player Yang Rui (Liu Yunlong), who is drawn in by her continued denial of his advances. Still, despite some initial troubles, she warms to him, and in turn he starts to change his ways. He even forms a bond with her young son, Xiong, though An Xin is a little iffy on the exact details of his birth. It's not hard to see why Yang is so drawn to An Xin; aside from the fact that she's portrayed by the lovely Vicki Zhao, An Xin is tough and independent, yet emotional and sensitive. It's clear that her actions hide inner turmoil, and quite possibly a tragic past. On the list of Stock Attractive Female Protagonists, An Xin might be #7.
      Still, that isn't enough to guarantee any sort of happy ending. When Yang Rui gets thrown into jail on a corruption charge (courtesy of his ex-girlfriend), An Xin's past comes into sharp focus. While Yang believed she was merely a poor single mother, An Xin was in fact a narcotics cop in the town of Nande, and the local Tae Kwan Do champ. Her former husband Tienjun (Chen Jiabin) died protecting Xiong under murky circumstances, which only come to light in a massive flashback to three years earlier. There we learn that An Xin's impending nuptials were interrupted by an ill-fated affair with hot young fellow Maojie (Nicholas Tse). The two had a hot-and-heavy flirtation, but An Xin called it off—ironically right before a drug bust which reveals Maojie to be a regular drug trafficker. An Xin gets her former fling thrown into jail, but the fallout is tragic. A lot of people die as a result of Maojie's arrest, subsequent trial, and eventual freedom.
     Given all of the above, it's no surprise that An Xin is a little leery of relationships, but there's supposedly greater depth to her conflicts. Ivy Ho's script (from a story by Hai Yan) affords us the opportunity to observe An Xin in a variety of roles, namely mother (to little Xiong), policewoman (her narcotics-busting activities), and finally woman (her attraction to Maojie, and subsequent acceptance of Yang Rui). The all-encompassing situations provide Ann Hui a large canvas to paint her picture of An Xin, a supposedly remarkable woman who gets frequent comparison to Kwanyin, the goddess of mercy AND the subject of a pendant worn by Tienjun, then An Xin, and finally Yang Rui. However, that lofty symbolism is questionably appropriate, as An Xin never becomes a character that truly warrants such grand respect. She's certainly an intriguing character, and Vicki Zhao tries gamely to flesh her out. Still, her casting might have been a mistake; Zhao is impressively photogenic, but she doesn't bring across the layers of turmoil An Xin must be experiencing. The character has experienced, and even caused, a lot of heinous stuff. Her eventual strength of character is probably the result of her trials, but Ann Hui's distant camera makes connecting to her difficult. Oddly enough, her emotions aren't truly felt.
     Bad boy Nicholas Tse fares better as the charismatic Maojie, and Chen Jiabin brings a quiet integrity to the character of Tienjun. Unfortunately, Liu Yunlong has the inenviable task of bringing Yang Rui to life. Yang is the "storyteller" of Goddess of Mercy, meaning much of what happens is filtered through his experience. He's also a character that changes during the film, but his growth from shallow playboy to ardent, soulful lover is one that only seems to exist on the printed page. Yes, the script calls for him to be insightful and empathetic towards An Xin, but his character doesn't feel real. Yang Rui feels like a character from a simpler, more commercially-minded script. He's the bad boy turned good thanks to an emotionally wounded woman, which qualifies as Stock Male Supporting Protagonist #4.
     Not that the usage of stock types is necessarily a bad thing, as pretty much all commercial cinema uses stock types. Hell, Wong Jing probably has a file of stock types in his office, listing male and female characters from 1-100, each with a checklist of prescribed character traits. However, the problem here is Goddess of Mercy is not really a commercial film, though its plot lends itself to certain commercial instincts. It has a bubbling revenge storyline, as well as seedy criminal badguys who tote shotguns and threaten to kill kids—traits of your usual multiplex features. At the same time, the film boasts reflective interludes and grand character aspirations, and is told in Ann Hui's trademark observational style. Her style can create excellent results, such as July Rhapsody. However, that film was a character drama, and not a crime thriller. Goddess of Mercy is more of a thriller, but possesses all the storytelling hallmarks of a character drama. The big question: which is it? Probably both, but the film never seems to commit in either direction. As such, it doesn't really succeed at being either.
     Still, the story manages to be intriguing, though with questionable long-lasting effect. Goddess of Mercy features many quiet plot points which get slowly revealed over the film's languid 110-minute running time. The revelations can be surprising, though more astute cinematic readers will probably see them coming a mile away. Or, you can simply read the back of the DVD cover, which gives away every plot revelation as if they were explained in the film's first five minutes. Someone at Universe Films should smack around the marketing department, because this sort of tell-all marketing copy simply ruins films for a lot of people. Goddess of Mercy still manages to reach a suitably dark, and even haunting conclusion, but the film doesn't really come off as something worth remembering. This is probably decent viewing for those with the patience for Ann Hui's slow storytelling style, as the cinematic distance gives us plenty to mull over. Also, despite questionable ultimate meaning, the storyline provides enough conflict and suspense to maintain interest. Still, when it's all over, one has to wonder if there was really anything going on. (Kozo 2004)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Universe Laser
Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

image courtesy of Universe Films Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen