Mousy bank clerk May (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia) embezzles five hundred-thousand Hong Kong dollars so husband Chan King-Sang (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) can pay off his gambling debts. Together they visit Chan's uncle in Thailand hoping to borrow enough to replace the stolen money but the self-righteous old man proves no help. On the ferry home a distraught Sang attempts suicide but ends up dumping May into the sea. After the police clear Sang of any wrongdoing, all the blame for the stolen money lands on his dead wife. Meanwhile Sang boots May's elderly dad (Sek Kin, steel-clawed Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon (1973)) out of the house and grows increasingly nasty towards their (frankly bratty) son Ming (Gregory Lee Wing-Ho). He also rises to become a big player at his investment company. After taking the old geezers on the board of directors to task for mismanaging funds, Sang ends up dating the boss' daughter (Patricia Chong Jing-Yee with big Eighties hair). But what he doesn't know is May is alive and bound for home aboard a Vietnamese fishing boat. Disfigured and mute she struggles to clear her name and save her family.
Even after two decades away from the screen Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia remains the most popular film star of all time in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Yes, bigger than Bruce or Jackie. Produced by innovative studio Cinema City under the aegis of onetime comedian Dean Shek, now best known for his dramatic turn in A Better Tomorrow II (1987), Lady in Black endows Brigitte with the kind of stoically suffering role Joan Crawford would have relished in her Forties heyday. Fans rate her anguished performance here among her best but her character is actually off-screen for much of the film. Solid thespian Tony Leung Ka-Fai commands attention as Sang, a compellingly complex mix of odious villainy, self-loathing and semi-sympathetic loser but too often the film veers off into lachrymose soap opera. Too many scenes of corporate negotiations and would-be tear-jerking moments between curmudgeonly grandpa and snivelling grandson disrupt what ought to be a taut narrative.
Lady in Black is one of the more widely available Sun Chung films from the period after he left Shaw Brothers. Chung's work at that legendary studio was characterized by virtuoso cinematic technique (he was the first HK filmmaker to employ steadicam and his editing and photography are routinely superb) and a cynical, almost fatalistic outlook on life, both of which are evident here. It is slick character driven thriller although Chung paints in broad strokes from his sugary depiction of family life to suspense sequences that are laboured to the point of parody. This is the kind of movie where every hysterical confrontation is underscored by a crack of thunder and lightning or a blast of the dated synth rock score. Eventually when Sang's self-serving villainy proves too much to bear and an unhinged, hideously scarred May goes gunning for revenge, Chung goes for semi-Gothic horror with spooky lighting and little avant-garde flourishes. He also stages some operatic deaths in spectacular slow-motion that would earn the admiration of Brian De Palma but still sandwiches them between dull scenes where May just wanders around looking forlorn.
Philip Kwok Tsui, the most personable of the Five Deadly Venoms (1978), takes a supporting role as the taxi driver brother of May's best friend, Shanny (Mak Git-Man). He also choreographed the stunts. These two gruff-but-good-hearted working class folk mortgage their property to give hitherto affluent middle class May the money she needs for a life-saving operation, but while the film neglects to develop this poignant bit of social commentary. After a great deal of faffing about the explosively nihilistic horror movie climax proves rather cathartic.