Puccini’s Turandot sets the theme for the latest collaboration between Hong Kong director Herman Yau (邱禮濤) and screenwriter Erica Li (李敏). In NESSUN DORMA, Jessica Tsang (actress/model Janice Man, HELIOS/赤道) is a pretty and naïve woman who is engaged to wealthy and handsome businessman Vincent Lee (Gordon Lam, TRIVISA/樹大招風). On the night before their wedding, Jessica gets kidnapped and is raped, or so we’re told. She somehow gets herself free from her attacker and wakes up back in her car outside her uber-hip (and illegal, by the way) apartment located in an industrial building. With her wedding now just hours away, she gets herself ready, not telling the police or her obsessively doting mother of her ordeal. She does, however, tell Vincent on their wedding night, which he doesn’t take too well. He thought he was marrying a virgin and he suspects Jessica of plotting some scam to bilk him out of his fortune. After smacking her around a bit, he banishes her to the maid’s quarters in his posh house, a room that rivals many Hong Kong luxury hotel suites.
Rather than packing her bags the next morning, Jessica heads off to work at the dog shelter she runs somewhere in the New Territories. As she starts picking up the pieces of her life – rather quickly, I might add – with the help of her dog-loving, math prodigy friend, Fong (actor/singer Andy Hui), Jessica decides to find out who perpetrated her attack and sets out to get revenge.
I am not a fan of Hong Kong cinema (10 YEARS being the most recent exception) and NESSUN DORMA did nothing to change my opinion. While we are asked to buy into the concept that Jessica mirrors Turandot‘s icy princess, all Yau and Li show us is a whiney, vacuous young woman who needs a good swift kick up her ass. Yes, she is pretty but she’s not in the least bit attractive. I can appreciate that in the past some Chinese women would have preferred to stay quiet after being raped but this is 2016 and Jessica is supposed to be an educated, modern woman. She doesn’t even share her experience with her mother – who seems to be her only female friend. Because Jessica is not a likeable character, we don’t empathise with her as she tries to figure out how to escape from her attacker. The film’s editing of this part of the story doesn’t help either. Just as we start to get into how harrowing this ordeal must be for her, the story flashes back as Jessica recalls various conversations she had in a bid to work out who is holding her captive. Then there is the matter of the oppressively heavy music that is intended to set the mood for these scenes. Someone needs to tell Yau that music is supposed to add to the mood, not smother it in goop.
So who raped Jessica? When there are only four men in the cast and three have suspicious backstories, it doesn’t take a math genius to figure out whodunit. Unfortunately, Yau not only makes us wait for over an hour as Jessica puts the pieces together herself but he also expects us to understand her behaviour once she does. Neither is very believable.
NESSUN DORMA is all about second chances, which Fong repeatedly calls “The Monty Hall Problem*”. As a Canadian who grew up in the 1960s, I know exactly who Monty Hall is. (His brother, Robert, was even a friend of the family.) But do young Hongkongers know? Jessica tells us at the end of the film that she should have made a different choice when presented with new information. Had I known what rubbish this film was before I went into the cinema, I would have made a different choice too.
NESSUN DORMA premiered on March 22nd at the 40th Hong Kong International Film Festival. It will be on general release shortly. Give it a miss.
* The shortcoming with the Monty Hall Problem is that it never took into account Monty’s behaviour. He didn’t always offer contestants a second chance. Moreover, the Problem assumes there is one good choice and two bad choices. On his TV show, Let’s Make a Deal, more often than not, there was one good choice, one bad choice and one great choice. In these situations, contestants were presented with the good choice and it was up to them to determine whether or not there was something even better waiting behind one of the boxes or doors.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 27:45.)
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