Web Of Deception (1989)
by: David Chung
at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1989:
Hong Kong cinema have certainly not spoilt us with suspense thrillers or multiple, major opportunities for certain performers to step out of their successful and established cinema image. With this, David Chung's last directed movie, having churned out admirable action efforts such as Royal Warriors and Magnificent Warriors prior, Brigitte Lin and Joey Wong in particular gets a chance to shed their image from the Wuxia world of movies such as A Chinese Ghost Story and Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain. But in the timeline, for Lin anyway, she hadn't yet fully become the fiery eyed fighter from Swordsman 2 and Dragon Inn but no doubt, viewers will be exposed to Web Of Deception (aka Deception) long after those films have been witnessed. Time to look back. Now shall we?
When barrister Jane (Brigitte Lin) finds out her stocks have crashed, she takes the loss and the 1.1 million that is now left. She plans to emigrate to Canada, leaving her trusted assistant May (Pauline Wong - Her Vengeance) behind. Feeling betrayed, May sends a blackmail note to Jane, feeling that's the only way she can get something out of those many yea's of hard work. At the same time, May's roommate Queenie (Joey Wong) desperately needs money to clear a debt to the triads that her ex-con twin sister Cat (naturally, Joey Wong again) has worked up. It's decided to make a break for the money, or rather a break-in at Jane's mansion, an assignment Queenie takes it upon herself to perform. As these things go, the simple planning goes wrong, leaving Queenie dead in a struggle with Jane. Now, May is still after the money and Cat is now after revenge...
David Chung's sayonara to directing Hong Kong cinema, but not shooting it (one of his last cinematography stints was on Derek Yee's Full Throttle in 1995), does provide us with the verification that he was a little engine that could. Because in all honesty, his other credits aren't exactly examples of a narrative master at work. While downright sloppy at times though, Web Of Deception is an eye opener for Chung the director and cinematographer. Backed by Tsui Hark's Film Workshop for a second time (first one being I Love Maria in 1988), early on Chung indicates that he's going for style. He naturally assigned himself to director of photography duty therefore as well but even if he hadn't had that track of mind, I'm sure hands on producer Tsui Hark would've had a few suggestions. In any case, stage is quite nicely set for an atmospheric 90 minutes and it's going to get better in that regard.
Terrific and flawed. Exhilarating and a wee bit frustrating. That is the summary of the whole of Chung's work on this picture. When the stylish start is over and narrative is focused on, Chung definitely manages to log a bad setup for the next bulk of the running time. Neither main characters gets a detailed background, which is fine, but instead rather weak motivations for trying to scam Brigitte Lin's Jane. She on the other hand gets quick exposition about her desperate situation which all good for the 90 minutes ahead but for May, Queenie and eventually Cat, the script doesn't do them any favors. Pauline Wong's May, who represents the weak despite her being the so called mastermind, has such a bad excuse to venture into crime for instance. Was there ever a grudge between her and Jane? Not any apparent one, no. Instead the filmmakers writes an arc for her that's about a dissatisfaction with her career and while it speaks to the non-rational character trait, it also comes off as far fetched.
Twins sisters Queenie and Cat get no apparent background regarding their past bonding either so the former mercilessly throwing herself into burglary and stealing just for the sake of saving her jailbird bitch of a sister also is a rather weak characterization. Only the subsequent revenge motivation for Cat is bearable but we're not treated to meaty character portrayals here. There lies treats ahead though as Chung soon is relocating almost exclusively to the mansion set.
For the middle section he then pulls out all the stops, creating an at times breathtaking suspense thriller that is high on cinematography clichés but god damn, Chung pulls off the dual jobs he's assigned himself to with great aplomb. The first set piece taking place at night with the requisite moody blue light and yes...thunderstorms is a triumph in editing, audience participation and an almost Sun Chung-esque execution of eerie slow-motion before violence hits. When he plays out all the deceit within this web of deception in daylight subsequently, some of the dark edge is lost but his stride is still there.
But oh how difficult some people have wrapping up thrillers and without detailing obviously, Chung basically leaves it up to us to assume certain things and that is a major no-no here after such a terrific and tense, mostly one-set ride of suspense. Chiu Man Hoi's effective score divides its time between what really is stock thriller cues but also a pounding sections reminiscent of a bell tolling for the damned. For whom the bell tolls indeed...
For his almost all female cast, Chung does some of his best work as well, in particular for otherwise cinema sweetheart Joey Wong. Playing dual roles, in rather simple but effective split screen scenes, she is the epitome of nasty and evil. Joey is really relishing the opportunity without going into hysterics at the wrong times. Her power struggle with Pauline Wong, the strong vs. the weak basically, is an effective one and while Pauline Wong has to struggle with inferior writing, seeing the stress in her witnessing that her plan is going completely overboard is entertaining. Between these two, Chung even finds some dark comical touches that are very much well-integrated. Brigitte Lin do lead the cast but is in particular overshadowed by Joey Wong. Still, she was one of the most captivating and stunning actresses Hong Kong cinema had ever seen and her desperate, paranoid and victimized Jane is convincingly handled. Waise Lee, as the sole male of importance appears for a few minutes, fails to make an impression but his character trait of having the police force's best nose is a nice gag, leading into decent nailbiting moments. When all is said and done, even his role within the framework is questionable due to the choices in ending the story.
I didn't know David Chung had it in him and Web Of Deception today stands as an underrated suspense-thriller that is high on correctly handled stylistic choices. With the low attention to characters and their motivations however, Chung isn't able to thoroughly punish us for 90 minutes but as a rare Hong Kong cinema genre entry, Web Of Deception packs a punch.
Deltamac presents the film in a slightly overmatted 1.88.1 aspect ratio approximately. Oddly enough, the end credits revert to 2.35:1 but there's no sign of the film being a scope production even though Chung had lensed at least one such before. With a movie that relies much on darkness, the disc isn't perfect but features fair black levels and shadow detail. Colours register a bit on the washed out side but it's a look I feel is synonymous with the era, and budget releases. Print has minor speckling throughout but not overly distracting despite the conscious darkness.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 track is free from distortion and handles dialogue competently. A Mandarin 2.0 dub is also included.
The English subtitles occasionally clips letters from certain words but work generally well. 2-3 lines of dialogue, non-crucial, are not subtitled however. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. Only extra is the trailer.
Thanks to White Dragon, Mark and Balzac13 for help with identifying the screenwriting credit.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson