With all the fuss in recent years over Hollywood remakes of Asian films, it is sometimes easy to forget that the process works both ways, and indeed has done for many years. A perfect case in point is “The Black Cat”, from director Stephen Shin, a Hong Kong remake of French auteur Luc Besson’s influential female assassin drama “La Femme Nikita”, which was also remade in Hollywood as the rather limp Bridget Fonda vehicle “Point of No Return”.
Although Shin was perhaps best known for a variety of romantic comedies in the late 1980s and early 1990s such as the “Heart to Hearts” trilogy and “Perfect Match”, he also ran a nice sideline in explosive female-oriented action, directing “Black Cat 2”, “Vengeance Is Mine” and “Forbidden Arsenal” amongst others. The original “Black Cat” was a hit on its original release, with lead actress Jade Leung wining the Best New Artist award at the 11th Hong Kong Film Awards for her powerful performance. A great example of wild, golden age Hong Kong action, it has remained a cult favourite with fans of the girls-with-guns genre, and has now finally been re-released on DVD for a new generation to enjoy its old school charms.
The film stars Leung (who would go on to reprise her role in the sequel) as Catherine, a desperate young woman on the run in the U.S., who after being caught by the police for a violent murder is recruited by the CIA as an assassin. Renamed Erica, under the tutelage of suave handler and mentor Brian (a young Simon Yam, recently seen in the likes of “Exodus” and “Eye in the Sky”), she is subjected to a strange and brutal training regime, which also sees her having an explosive microchip implanted in her brain to increase her physical prowess. Eventually, she is sent back to Hong Kong on a mission, and while posing as a journalist she meets and begins a relationship with environmentalist Allen (television actor Thomas Lam), enjoying happiness for the first time in her life. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, and soon she and Allen are on the run, fighting not only her target and his henchmen, but also her own agency.
Central to the success of “The Black Cat” is the fact that Erica is an all-time great protagonist, not least thanks to an excellent, intense performance from Jade Leung, who really throws herself into the role. Indeed, her transformation from feral criminal to cold killer and finally to functional emotional human being is gripping and gratifying, not least since it is quite incredible to see the sheer amount of punishment she takes during the running time whilst still managing to keep fighting, not to mention looking cute. The film’s two pivotal relationships involving Brian and Allen are similarly effective, and add a further layer of emotional depth generally unseen in the genre, even though for the most part their scenes with Erica consist mainly of longing stares and awkward silences.
Of course, the main selling point here is the action, and on this level the film certainly scores high, being a determinedly vicious and visceral affair very much in the Hong Kong fashion of the time, with plenty of bloody bullet wounds, people crashing through windows and nudity. Although after an explosive opening and some excellently wacky training scenes the film does slow down a touch around the halfway mark, it thankfully picks up again before the end in fine style with a genuinely thrilling conclusion, which quite obviously sets things up for the sequel. Shin shows a real talent for gunplay, never overdoing the slow motion, and his direction is tight and stylish throughout, keeping things grounded and gritty despite the vaguely ridiculous premise. Undeniably, the film does look dated through its visuals, technology and bouncy synthesiser score, though this is only part of its considerable charms.
Certainly, “The Black Cat” is very much a product of its time, though in the best possible sense and it stands as an action classic from the time when Hong Kong was the genre world leader, improving upon and even surpassing the original “Nikita”. They really don’t really make them like this any more, and the film is not only an enduring classic and a must see for any girls-with-guns aficionados, but compares favourably to any modern equivalent in recent memory.
Stephen Shin (director) / Lun Ah, Lam Tan Ping, Chan Bo Shun (screenplay)
CAST: Jade Leung … Erica Leung / Catherine
Simon Yam … Brian
Thomas Lam … Thomas