The Second Woman
Hong Kong/China, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 100 mins.
Director: Li Miaoxue 黎妙雪 [Carol Lai].
Poorly written psychodrama about twins in love with the same man generates no tension.
A seaside village, Guangdong province, China, the present day. Actor-writer Fang Yi’nan (Yu Wenle) and actress Lin Huibao (Shu Qi) have been together since they met after graduating at drama college, though Lin Huibao’s elder identical twin sister Lin Huixiang (Shu Qi) is also in love with him. Lin Huibao has the secondary female role in a costume musical drama that Fang Yi’nan has written, starring himself and older actress Amy (Chen Shu), called The Legend of Plum Blossom 红梅传奇. The stage play is about a scholar, Peilang, and the two women who love him – Huiniang, who died three years ago, and Lu Zhaorong. At a performance in Beijing, Lin Huixiang takes over Lin Huibao’s part for one night when the latter feels ill, and, though only an amateur, is a great success. Back home, where the sisters live with their blind mother (Xi Meijuan), Fang Yi’nan finally decides to get engaged to Lin Huibao. Lin Huixiang suddenly disappears and no one can trace her. Meanwhile, Amy, who’s always been unhappy with Lin Huibao’s clumsy acting, threatens to quit the play, and is then hospitalised for a week after an accident during rehearsals caused by Lin Huibao. Lin Huibao thus gets a crack at the lead role. In the meantime, Fang Yi’nan’s best friend KK (Zhang Naitian) offers to help track down Lin Huixiang in his spare time, and starts to suspect that Lin Huixiang has actually taken Lin Huibao’s place.
The Chinese title of this fifth feature by Hong Kong director Li Miaoxue 黎妙雪 [Carol Lai] roughly means “Love Puzzle”, and audiences are likely to feel just as confused by the movie as are the characters in it. A psychodrama about two identical twins who love the same guy until one – but which one? – suddenly goes missing one dark and ominous night, The Second Woman 情谜 isn’t helped by a script that can’t even lay out its exposition in a non-confusing way before piling on the mystery, and has performances by Taiwan actress Shu Qi 舒淇 that are as identical as the twins she plays. That’s partly the point, of course – as the rest of the characters are always saying they can’t tell them apart – but there’s very little drama or tension engendered when even the audience is confused from the start. (For non-Chinese viewers, there’s the additional problem of the English subtitles not differentiating between “older sister” and “younger sister” in the translation.)
Li, a former a.d. and TV producer who attracted some attention when her first feature, the ambling drama Glass Tears 玻璃，少女。(2001), premiered in Cannes’ Critics’ Week, has done nothing of note since (Mainland-set melodrama The Floating Landscape 恋之风景, 2003, and thrillers The Third Eye 小心眼, 2006, and Naraka 19 地狱第19层, 2007). The Second Woman shows the same lack of focus and wobbly scripting as her other movies, as well as a taste for the obvious: here, an unsubtle parallel in the cheesy costume musical that the leads are involved in, plus too much explanatory dialogue near the end. As the twins, Shu brings some starry glamour, and Mainland TV actress-dancer Chen Shu 陈数 some elegance and bite as a bitchy diva, but Hong Kong’s Yu Wenle 余文乐 [Shawn Yue] is bland in the lead male role.
On a technical level, however, the film is Li’s smoothest to date and earns an extra point on that count, with natural visual effects when the twins are both on screen, good-looking photography by Cai Chonghui 蔡崇辉 [Johnny Choi] (Seven Swords 七剑, 2005; The Myth 神话, 2005; Naraka 19), and a symphonic score by the experienced Huang Yinghua 黄英华 [Raymond Wong Ying-wah] that tries hard to evoke some drama and emotion.
Presented by Joy Pictures (Shanghai) (CN), Sun Entertainment Culture (HK), Joy Media (CN), China Movie Channel (CN). Produced by Stars Shine Blue Sea Productions (HK).
Script: Li Miaoxue [Carol Lai], Li He. Photography: Cai Chonghui [Johnny Choi]. Editing: Kuang Zhiliang. Music: Huang Yinghua [Raymond Wong Ying-wah]. Art direction: Zhang Shihong [Silver Cheung]. Costumes: Zhang Shijie [Stanley Cheung]. Styling: Zhang Shuping [William Chang]. Sound: Zheng Yingyuan [Phyllis Cheng], Lin Shaoru.
Cast: Shu Qi (Lin Huixiang; Lin Huibao), Yu Wenle [Shawn Yue] (Fang Yi’nan), Chen Shu (Amy), Xi Meijuan (Mrs. Lin, sister’s mother), Zhang Naitian (KK, Yi’nan’s friend), Niu Mengmeng (Xiaofan, KK’s younger sister), Lu Haipeng (Tai, uncle), Leng Zhongyi (Zhong, policeman), Chen Yan (Mrs. Li, neighbour), Zhang Jincheng (stage director), Feng Jin’gao (Hai), Wen Guangyu (stage producer), Lu Xuan (deputy stage manager), He Xinwei (assistant stage manager), Chen Jinsong (Amy’s manager), Yang Yang (Amy’s make-up artist), Xiao Xueyuan (Amy’s assistant), Peng Danqing (Helen), Wen Jing (May), Ou Xiaoxiao (drummer), Wang Dongcheng, Liang Chuanbin (theatre security staff).
Release: Hong Kong, 22 Mar 2012; China, 8 Mar 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 4 Apr 2012.)