Originally released back in 1986, Taiwanese drama “Dark Night” was based upon a novel by noted feminist writer Li Ang and was directed and scripted by Fred Tan, who previously worked as an assistant director for the legendary King Hu on the likes of “Raining in the Mountain” and “Legend of the Mountain”. Interestingly, the film was not Tan’s only literary adaptation, as in 1988 he brought “Lust, Caution” novelist Eileen Chang’s book “Rouge of the North” to the screen. Given the source material, it should come as no surprise that the film deals with themes of adultery and sexual repression, offering up a scathing depiction of the role of women in modern relationships.
The film centres on Lee (actress Su Ming Ming, also in “Outcasts” and the similarly themed “My Name is Woman”), an unfulfilled housewife who is married to a businessman called Wong (Cheung Kwok Chu, who starred in the controversial Taiwanese erotic drama “Twisted Passion” around the same time). Their marriage is pushed to breaking point when Lee starts a torrid affair with a journalist called Yeh Yuen (Xu Ming, who also starred in Tan’s “Rouge of the North”), who just happens to be Wong’s new business partner. Matters get even more complicated when Lee falls pregnant, which inevitably leads to tragic results for all concerned.
Unsurprisingly, “Dark Night” plays out from a definite feminist perspective, with the two men being seemingly interested in Lee only as either a conquest or as a possession, and with the suitably downbeat ending underlining a rather bleak view of the power game between the sexes. This is not to say that the film is a simplistic, ant-male affair, as it fleshes out all of the characters with a genuinely non-judgemental eye. Indeed, none of the main players are treated with any unnecessary sympathy or warmth, with Lee’s decision to embark on her affair being driven primarily by her own desires rather than due to Wong being any kind of monster. Most of the supporting cast seem to confirm the film’s grim view, with all of Lee’s housewife friends having young lovers, and with most of the men being lascivious playboys. Although dark, the film is intelligent and ambiguous, and challenges the viewer by asking uncomfortable questions rather than by playing things safe or offering empty platitudes.
There is a fair amount of sex, though little of it is played for cheap titillation, and the film never descends into exploitation territory. Interestingly, although most of the cast appear nude or partly nude, the only skin on show during a sexual scene is actually quite disturbing, coming when Lee catches sight of herself in the mirror whilst romping with Yeh. This device neatly emphasises the film’s psychological edge, whilst further serving to highlight its assertion that sex and intimacy, and indeed happiness do not always go hand in hand.
Also distancing the film from any kind of sleazy thrills is the fact that the proceedings are surprisingly tense, with Tan keeping the viewer on edge and guessing, in the early stages as to when Lee will give in to her desires, and later as to when poor Wong will uncover her infidelity and how he will react. The soundtrack is mostly made up of shrieking violins, and the film at times feels more like a suspense thriller than a domestic drama. This of course is by no means a bad thing, as it certainly helps to keep the viewer gripped and to keep events moving along to the inevitable confrontations which make up the final act.
As such, “Dark Night” is a film which works well on a number of different levels, and should be enjoyed by viewers looking for something intellectually stimulating, as well as by those who might not normally find such a premise appealing. Although not necessarily cheerful stuff, it has far more depth than other films of its type and is both well made and engaging throughout.
Fred Tan (director) / Fred Tan (screenplay)
CAST: Emily Y. Chang … Mrs. Niu
Hsu Ming … Yeh Yuen
Ming-Ming Sue … Li Ling
Guozhu Zhang … Hwong Cheng-teh