|Revenge is a terrible thing, but that doesn't mean you can't look cool doing it. Pop singer/splatter film fan Juno Mak wrote the original story for and also stars in Revenge: A Love Story, which he claims is an anti-revenge movie. The film is the second production from Josie Ho, Conroy Chan and Andrew Ooi's 852 Films, which also gave us Pang Ho-Cheung's social commentary slasher Dream Home. This time, bombastic filmmaking and artistic pretensions (courtesy of co-writer/director Wong Ching-Po) replace social commentary and tongue-in-cheek dark humor.
The switch from socially-conscious slasher to pretentious grindhouse thriller could please western genre film fans who might have been confused by Dream Home's look at a local Hong Kong issue. Despite the in-your-face direction, Wong Ching-Po’s direction is more down-to-earth compared to his own Jiang Hu and Ah Sou, avoiding much of the showy MTV-style filmmaking that alienated and frustrated audiences. However, his script tries far too often for meaning, depriving the audience of a simple stylistic exercise in extreme violence.
Of possible greater interest than Juno Mak, Wong Ching-Po and even the gore is popular Japanese adult film actress Sola Aoi, who’s acting in her first Chinese-language film. As expected, Aoi seems out of place among a cast of rough-looking Hong Kong actors (and Juno Mak), which might explain why her character Wing seems slightly mentally challenged. However, that doesn't really matter in the film's opening 20 minutes, which unleashes a series of ugly, violent acts. Juno Mak is easily the star of this opening section as his character Kit brutally kills several policemen and slices open their pregnant wives' stomachs. Even though the opening jolts its audience into discomfort, it doesn’t introduce any characters worth following, as nearly all of them perpetrate violent acts that make them hard to care about.
At this point, Revenge really begins as Kit is caught by the police and the film flashes back to its love story, which provides the film's emotional core. Characters are re-established, including Kit as the innocent town idiot and Wing as the young, naive schoolgirl living with her grandmother. When Wing's grandmother dies, Kit bails Wing out of the worst and most unconvincing foster care facility in Hong Kong, leading to a short romance that abruptly ends when a local drunkard (Lau Wing) mistakes Wing for a prostitute. The drunkard turns out to be a cop, setting off a chain of events that leaves Kit in prison and Wing brutally raped.
The love story takes up most of the second act and gives Revenge a down-to-earth quality that similar films lack. After the intense opening, the second act puts the audience at ease, and is actually the only portion of the film where any kind of humor can be found. Meanwhile, the rest of the film is too hung up on its themes and extreme visuals to do anything else, even sacrificing logic and characterization to play up its hardcore spirit. Wong's direction is unpretentious by his lofty standards, but his script is the opposite, splitting the story into eight portentously-named chapters - like “The Devil Shook the Hand of the Duck Who Thinks He's God” (note: NOT a real title) – that have absolutely nothing to do with the events of the film if you're not a comparative literature major.
While Revenge: A Love Story proudly flaunts its anti-revenge message via the intertitles, it indulges in giddy exploitation violence, setting up one inventive kill after another in its fantasy world filled with empty hospitals, abandoned gas stations with working gas pumps, and police stations that are only manned by six policemen. All the way up to its final scene, it serves up messages about the evils of revenge, but doesn't hesitate to show the gloriously bloody ways people go about seeking it. At no point do the film's protagonists seem to actually learn anything that makes them convincingly change their attitude towards revenge, making the film’s anti-revenge message appear hypocritical and insincere.
Revenge: A Love Story will be treated kindly, as it’s a genre film attempted without regard for China – and with the Hong Kong film market shrinking, I would not hesitate to agree. However, it’s also a mean-spirited film that exploits its actors (including Aoi, who was obviously cast because no Hong Kong actress would touch her tormented character with a ten-foot pole) into making something that appear to be meaningful. If given lower production values, Revenge would've simply been another disposable category-III exploitation film in the 90s, but at least it would then be aware of its own limited nature. In its current form, Revenge: A Love Story is a b-movie dressed up in a-movie clothes, and it definitely doesn't fit. (Kevin Ma, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2010)