Hong Kong writer director Carol Lai returns with “The Second Woman”, a suspense drama revolving around the ever popular theme of sinister twins. The film receives a real boost from having popular and award winning actress Shu Qi (“Love”) in the two lead roles, with Shawn Yue (“Love in the Buff”) on hand as her understandably confused beau, plus support from Chen Shu, Zhang Nai Tian and Niu Meng Meng.
Shu Qi plays Huibao, an understudy actress rehearsing for a new performance of the play “The Legend of Lady Plum Blossom” with her boyfriend Nan (Shawn Yue). When she is struck down by illness, her twin sister Huixiang (also Shu Qi) takes over in her place, delivering a superb performance and surprising everyone. This puts a great deal of tension on the relationship between the sisters, not least since Huibao starts to suspect that Huixiang might be making eyes at Nan behind her back. Matters come to a head one stormy night when the two confront each other down by the ocean, a run-in which only Huibao returns from. With Huixiang’s disappearance unexplained and Huibao acting strangely, two of Nan’s friends, KK (Zhang Nai Tian) and Fan (Niu Meng Meng) decide to investigate.
Carol Lai is one of the sadly small number of Chinese directors who seem to genuinely be concerned with doing something with genre cinema, having tried her hand at eccentric suspense with her previous outings “Naraka 19” and “The Third Eye”. As with these films, though not wholly successful, “The Second Woman” is a worthy effort, and does have a fair amount of entertainment value to offer. This comes partly through some gorgeously cinematic visuals and moodily atmospheric lighting, Lai making the most out of what was presumably a robust budget and being given a hand by A-List Hong Kong director Gordon Chan (“Painted Skin”) as producer.
Though the plot itself is familiar stuff, mixing tension and melodrama in classic Hollywood style, it’s a tale well-enough told and the film manages to keep the viewer interested. Lai certainly does her best to keep the twists and red herrings coming, and whilst the whole KK and Fan investigation makes for a quite clumsy narrative device, the script is generally solid and effective. The idea of having the play reflect real life events similarly works reasonably well, adding a neat thematic underlining to the expected themes of mistaken identity, jealousy and (possibly) murderous psychosis.
The film unsurprisingly belongs to Shu Qi, who is excellent in the double lead role, managing to differentiate between the two sisters through some convincingly done mannerisms and facial expressions. This is of no small importance, giving the film some much needed depth and ambiguity, the differences between Huibao and Huixiang running far deeper than the usual contrasting dress sense or simple good/bad dichotomy. The rest of the cast don’t come off quite so well, Shawn Yue not having much to do apart from standing around and looking befuddled, though his shifting relationship with the twins also helps to keep the viewer engaged.
Where the film does fall down somewhat is in that in her haste to keep the plot twisting and turning, Lai neglects to add much emotional impact. As a result, though it holds the interest, the film is a rather cold affair, and would definitely have benefitted from actually making the audience care a little more about its characters, especially in the build-up to its big finale. Sexual tension is also notable for its absence Lai curiously deciding to avoid what could obviously have added another layer of intrigue.
Still, “The Second Woman” remains a good looking and enjoyable film, and despite its problems is one of the more accomplished and polished Chinese suspense outings of late. Carol Lai again proves herself a director worth keeping an eye on, though the film’s successes are mainly down to the outstanding work by Shu Qi, who is easily one of the most talented and watchable actresses working in China today.
Miu-suet Lai (director) / Miu-suet Lai, Ho Lai (screenplay)
CAST: Shu Chen
Mengmeng Niu … Fan
Qi Shu … Huibao
Shawn Yue … Nan
Zhang Nai Tian … KK