Released back in 1985, the Shaw Brothers production “Women” marked the debut of acclaimed director Stanley Kwan, and was the first of his many films based around female characters, something which has seen him develop a reputation for being one of Hong Kong cinema’s chief feminist cinematic voices. The film boasts an all star cast, featuring an early role for Chow Yun Fat, who was at the time still trying to establish himself as a serious film actor, and actresses Cherie Chung and Cora Miao. It was a critical hit in its day, garnering an impressive 9 nominations at the 5th Hong Kong Film Awards and helping to establish the director as an exciting new talent in the emerging new wave.
The plot follows the unfortunate Bao-er (Cora Miao, who had previously won praise for her role in Ann Hui’s “Boat People”), who decides to divorce her husband Derek (Chow Yun Fat, who later worked with Kwan again on “Love Unto Waste”) after she discovers he is having an affair. Seeking solace with her group of friends, who call themselves the ‘Happy Spinsters Club’, she begins to face life as a single mother while Derek moves in with his new young girlfriend (Cherie Chung). However, he soon comes to realise the error of his ways and starts trying to win her back, causing her to question what she really wants from life.
Although “Women” is obviously seen from a female point of view and does have feminist undertones, it is by no means a simple rant against the modern male, and Kwan depicts the games played by both sides in the war between the sexes. More than anything, the film is characterised by its openness, tackling issues of love and sex in an honest, even handed manner, and never shying away from the essential complexity of the human heart. The drama is well observed throughout, often painfully so, and through this Kwan manages to elevate the film from mere domestic potboiler to an engaging and thoughtful commentary not only on relationships but on life in general.
Crucially, the film revolves around a set of well written and believable characters, none of whom adhere to the usual stereotypes or genre conventions, and each of whom has their own set of motivations and emotional entanglements. Kwan takes a decidedly non-judgemental approach, and even Cherie Chung’s character is treated with a vague air of sympathy, being portrayed as a troubled, affection starved girl rather than a villainous marriage breaker. Similarly, whilst Chow Yun Fat’s Derek is undoubtedly a heel, he is not without a certain depth, and though he is probably the least developed of all the characters, there are at least hints of a troubled psyche lurking beneath his charming exterior. As a result, the intricate set of relationships at the heart of the plot is believable, making for a genuine and human film which comes across as being very true to life.
What also gives the film a lift is the fact that it is frequently quite funny in a gentle, unforced manner, mainly thanks to a series of romantic misunderstandings. Even more amusing are the sly jabs at the male ego, with Chow Yun Fat taking a young boy as his rival, who he is later reduced to trying to beat at a video game to assert himself. These add a welcome light touch and help to balance out some of the more serious and downbeat aspects of the film, preventing things from ever becoming too depressing, despite the serious subject matter.
Kwan directs with a naturalistic style, and the film is filled with fluid though unobtrusive camera work, lending it a subtly cinematic air. As he would continue to do in his later career, he shows a great eye for small personal details, giving the proceedings a down to earth feel and a sense of realism lacking in similar Hong Kong productions of the time, or indeed since.
“Women” is certainly a film which should appeal to any fan of Hong Kong cinema, even those not usually attracted to domestic drama or what might be traditionally thought of as ‘chick flicks’. Transcending the usual soap opera style shenanigans commonly associated with the genre and offering a surprisingly far reaching and affecting look at life and love, the film’s worth is proved by the fact that it still feels fresh and relevant today, more than twenty years after its original release.
Stanley Kwan (director) / Tai An-Ping Chiu, Kit Lai (screenplay)
CAST: Yin-Ling Chin