Domestic violence gets a compelling once-over in Hong Kong vet Ann Hui’s “Night and Fog,” which rises above its low-budget limitations on the basis of its hot-button topic and stellar performances. Establishing an air of fatalism at the start, this is a distinctly grim companion piece to Hui’s 2008 pic, “The Way We Are,” which offered a more benign portrait of the same Hong Kong town. Hui’s home fanbase should ensure respectable B.O. upon release in May for a subject many would like swept under the carpet. Further afield, the pic will become a fixture of quality fest programs.
A TV news report, watched by several women in different locations, tells of a murder-suicide involving a couple and their twin daughters in the outer Hong Kong projects of Tin Shui Wai. Flashbacks gradually reveal the backstory, as police interview neighbors and associates of the dead woman, Wong Hiu-ling (Zhang Jingchu), originally from the mainland.
Initially, a nervous neighbor, Mrs. Au (Amy Chum), recalls the woman’s reserved nature and the explosive temper of the husband, Lee Sum (Simon Yam). Later interviews, with Wong’s former co-habitants in a women’s shelter (spearheaded by Jacqueline Law’s tough-as-nails Lily), directly testify to the dead woman’s severe bruising and the persistent harassment of her husband.
The flashbacks are driven more by narrative concerns than by personal ones, deliberately revealing details that interviewees could not possibly know. Cheung King-wai’s script succinctly outlines various aspects — financial constraints, a whirlwind courtship, alcoholism — that contributed to the relationship’s violent nature.
While making it clear the sexually violent Lee has a mile-wide mean streak, the screenplay astutely makes room for Yam also to portray Lee’s appealing side. This humanizes, without excusing, his thuggish side, and helps to explain Wong’s initial attraction.
Yam’s layered perf is further aided by a sequence that shows Lee being falsely accused of one transgression he didn’t commit, and the pic’s most chilling moment comes when the thesp actually snarls into the camera. As the abused Wong, mainland actress Zhang also impresses.
Overall, the helming feels a little rushed, and the HD-to-35mm lensing is unexceptional. Other tech credits are good enough.
Chinese title, meaning “Tin Shui Wai: Night and Fog,” directly links it to “The Way We Are,” whose moniker translated as “Tin Shui Wai: Days and Nights.” For foreign viewers, the English title’s direct citing of Alain Resnais’ classic 1955 Holocaust docu seems unfortunate.