Goddess of Mercy (aka Jade Goddess of Mercy) – 玉觀音
Director: Ann Hui (許鞍華)
Cast: Vicki Zhao Wei (赵薇) , Nicholas Tse (謝霆鋒), Liu Yunlong, Chen Jianbin
Ann Hui is a pretty consistent director in the world of Hong Kong cinema in terms of quality. She made a name for herself early on with films such as The Story of Woo Viet (胡越的故事) and Boat People (投奔怒海), and she has continued to shine in recent years with just a few missteps along the way. With Goddess of Mercy, Hui takes on a complex character study of An Xin (Vicky Zhao Wei) and examines her tragic life. Borrowing themes associated with Guan Yin, the Buddhist deity of mercy and compassion, An Xin’s progressive suffering is used in a narrative sense to reveal more about her as a character and about the human experience, which is often fraught with tragedy and unpleasant situations. It’s an interesting film, but actually not one of Hui’s best, as An Xin’s tragedies become increasingly thriller-esque and parodic in nature and lose some of their dramatic punch.
The name An Xin translates to peace, but An Xin’s life is anything but peaceful. When we first meet her, she is lusted after by notorious womanizer Yang Rui (Yunlong Liu). He views himself as God’s gift to women, so when he propositions her in her taekwondo class and gets politely turned down, he goes into overdrive in his attempt to seduce this mysterious but alluring woman. After essentially forcing himself into her life, perhaps out of pure intrigue at her standoffishness, she accepts his friendship and nothing more – but only after dealing him a very deserving kick to the face. As it turns out, An Xin is a very complex character whose past experiences have led her to swear off any future relationships. Before living her current life, she was a police officer in the small but criminally populated town of Nande. Despite the dangers she faced every day, she excelled, and she even found the time to become engaged to a genuinely good man, Tiejun (Chen Jianbin). But the truth is that he’s not quite as exciting or good looking as Maojie (Nicholas Tse), a curious young man whom An Xin meets one day while off duty. She is quickly drawn to his charming spontaneity and the two become more than friends. But, as a law enforcement officer with a great deal of responsibility, she must be careful with whom she associates, and Maojie is revealed to be more than a little shady. An Xin, Tiejun, and their new baby pay for her lapse in judgment as her relationship with Maojie takes a turn for the worse, for he, along with his family, is heavily involved in drug trafficking. When he is busted by An Xin, the police target the rest of his family and kill them in a bloody shootout. It is an incident for which An Xin feels a great amount of regret and which Maojie will never forget.
It’s an interesting setup, and the cast largely does a good job (but, more on that later). At the center of the story is the relationship between An Xin and Maojie. The actors thankfully display a great amount of chemistry, because in order for us to sympathize with An Xin, we have to believe that she could fall for someone else despite being in a committed relationship with a looming marriage. Nicholas Tse is a fine actor who improves with each movie he’s in, and he competently sells Maojie’s impish charm right off the bat. Take a look here as An Xin and Maojie first meet:
However, despite the film’s central story, all is not well elsewhere. I think my misgivings about the film stem from how we are introduced to An Xin – through the initially sleazy Yang Rui. Take a look here at how he vies for her attention:
How Yang Rui views An Xin is of course meant to get to the heart of her character. We, like Yang Rui, are lured in by her beauty (it is Vicki Zhao Wei, after all) so we too can feel the power and tragedy of her story and walk away from the experienced a changed individual. Perhaps it’s a way of exposing our own preconceptions and prejudices about certain character types or, indeed, certain people. The problem is that he’s none too subtle, and she warms to his advances a little too quickly given her new found propensity to avoid starting any relationships or even friendships. I guess she feels guilty about slamming her heel into his face. But let’s face it, the guy is at first a total jerk. And though he naturally transitions to a nicer guy as the film goes on and even offers to help An Xin and her son financially, it’s hard to forget that he initially just viewed her as a conquest. In short, this is a transition that may have worked in the script, but it feels too artificial in the film. Liu Yunlong may portray the playboy well, but he never wins my sympathy. Unfortunately, this shortcutting is evident elsewhere. After Maojie’s family is killed, he takes revenge on An Xin, and the film becomes less of a character study and more of a generic thriller with a one-note villain. As a result, the events stop providing us insight into An Xin’s character and instead just push her further into emotional and geographical isolation. In the beginning, we see her as a very competent individual, able to handle herself physically and in peak condition, but as she is overwhelmed, she regresses into an increasingly vulnerable state.
So what might Ann Hui be trying to say with this character arc? Well, it’s not realistic to say that any one of us would do anything different or behave differently if faced with An Xin’s predicament, but in the context of the film, her regression takes away from the more powerful aspects – mainly her effect on those around her. Yang Rui goes from being a rank bastard to An Xin’s one true ally as a result of her emotional appeals. We first meet her in mid-crisis and can see how Yang Rui begins to change for the better, but as things get progressively worse, there is a greater focus on her tragedy at the expense of all-around character development. It’s almost as if director Hui is sidelining the male characters around An Xin and instead trying to reach us, the audience, directly using little more than sympathy and forced melodrama. So again, an interesting concept, but one that just does not reach its full potential. I give Ann Hui credit for crafting a female-centric story with an honest approach and garnering some excellent performances from most of the actors, but the misfires toward the end provide the film with little resonance.
(This shoud in now way, however, dissuade you from seeking out Ann Hui’s other films, for she is one of the best directors working today. I must recommend Visible Secret (幽靈人間), a stylish and emotionally heartfelt supernatural drama starring Eason Chan (陈奕迅) and Shu Qi (舒淇).)