A Lamb in Despair (1989) Movie Review

At first glance, “A Lamb in Despair” appears to be every bit the typical Category III release. It certainly has a number of the genre’s expected elements: a suggestive title, a lurid cover, and the presence of a prolific Hong Kong star, Anthony Wong (“The Untold Story”, and the more respectable “Infernal Affairs”). What the viewer may not expect is that the film is actually a restrained and reasonably intelligent psycho thriller that makes a genuine attempt not only to explain the motivations of the killer, but also to examine the morality of the methods used by his would-be captors.

Though this approach to the genre is certainly laudable, it also forces the film to walk a tightrope — it’s too high brow for the average Category III fan, while being too exploitative for “serious” audiences to even consider watching it. This is a shame, because although it’s not entirely successful by any means, “A Lamb in Despair” is an interesting film that deserves credit for at least making an effort where so few others do.

The plot is focused on Ted (Edward Mok), an apparent rapist/murderer who has been deported back to Hong Kong after the U.S. police fail to make any of his 25 convictions stick. Once back home, Ted appears to be settling into a normal life under close surveillance by the local police. However, journalist Charles (Wong) is convinced of Ted’s guilt and his likelihood of re-offending, and so launches a public and private campaign against him in an attempt to bring his mania to the surface.

Into this dangerous game Charles brings Ted’s childhood sweetheart Mendy (Sherming Yiu, from “Last Ghost Standing”), to further enflame Ted’s dreadful passions. Despite his efforts to forget the past, it’s clear that Ted has some very deep seated psychological scars, and soon women across Hong Kong are being abducted and killed.

“A Lamb in Despair” spends most of its time with Ted, following his current attempts to live quietly while mixing in a number of flashbacks to his abusive childhood. The film makes a serious attempt at painting a picture of a plausible, somewhat sympathetic maniac, though it falls down somewhat by clumsily using schizophrenia as a label for his condition. As well as throwing in a number of philosophical conversations on the nature of evil, director Tony Leung Siu Jung shows Ted’s degeneration with a number of visual techniques, some of which are quite effective, whilst others are unfortunately laughable.

Still, Leung succeeds in creating a fairly complex character that, despite being a little too impassive to be truly memorable, is a welcome change from the usual cackling lunatic of similar films. Wong’s journalist is also given considerable depth. He’s a driven man all too aware that his methods are morally questionable and likely to cause harm to a few individuals in their push for the greater good. The acting by both men is very good, adding to the film’s plausibility and helping it to stand out from others in the genre.

The downside to all of this characterization and intellectualizing is that “A Lamb in Despair” is a little slow, and is lacking in the bad taste action that defines the Category III genre. On one hand this is definitely a good thing, as the film lacks the usual contempt for its female characters that its peers display, and is devoid of their disturbing mixture of soft-core sex and rape scenes. On the other hand, the film comes across as being a little too earnest without having enough intelligence or impact to fulfill its aims.

This is still an exploitation film at its core, and there are probably enough unpleasant scenes and violence for it to qualify for the dubious honor of being awarded a Category III certificate. Although fairly bloodless, there is a nasty feel to the film, and a number of things are shown which certainly wouldn’t be shown in a Western equivalent.

Overall, “A Lamb in Despair” is not really a great film, but is worth seeking out for fans of Asian psycho thrillers or Category III fans that have grown tired of the genre’s usual trashy misanthropy. Although a little dull, “Despair’s” effort is certainly appreciated, and it does succeed to a certain degree in painting an interesting portrait of a damaged mind.

Tony Leung Siu Hung (director)
CAST: Anthony Wong Chau-Sang …. Charles
Sherming Yiu

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