Film review: Heaven in the Dark – Jacky Cheung, Karena Lam in sexual harassment drama

Stage-to-film adaptation has star power and features some of the best dramatic scenes in Hong Kong cinema in recent memory, yet is let down by clunky dialogue delivered with comically distorted faces

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2016, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 2016, 5:47pm

2.5/5 stars

The subtle differences between stage and film acting are amplified to often enthralling and sometimes painfully contrived effects in this part-adaptation, part-reimagination of French Kiss, playwright Candace Chong Mui-ngam’s hit 2005 play.

In essence a less politically inspired variation of David Mamet’s one-set, two character play Oleanna (1992), Chong’s chamber piece presented a debate between a former pastor and his female ex-colleague over their fiercely contradictory perceptions of the passionate act in the title, with both walking a tightrope between manipulation and self-delusion.

In Heaven in the Dark, the after-the-fact exchange between the two aggrieved parties is complemented with extended flashbacks that reconstruct the subtly shifting relationship from the start – and these come across as some of the best dramatic scenes that Hong Kong cinema has seen in recent memory. Fans of Ann Hui On-wah’s teacher-student romance July Rhapsody (2002) should also be thrilled by the onscreen reunion of Jacky Cheung Hok-yau and Karena Lam Ka-yan, who are respectively nominated for best actor and actress at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards for this film.

Five years earlier, Marco (Cheung) was both a respected pastor and the mastermind of an NGO looking to revolutionalise global medical supply with an ambitious recycling scheme. The charismatic man was also a renowned bachelor, a fact that didn’t escape Michelle (Lam), an impressionable junior member of staff at the charity who began to go to Marco’s church. As the two grew increasingly close, they ended up sharing a French kiss on a drunken night out – a seemingly consensual act that turned into an acrimonious court case, which found Marco guilty of molesting Michelle and ruined his life.

By making their present-day encounter – which formed the core of the stage play – the film’s framing device, first-time writer-director Yuen Kim-wai (also Lam’s real-life husband) has unwittingly highlighted the incompatibility between his naturalistic flashback scenes and the heightened reality of theatre. As Marco and Michelle lock themselves in a private room to reopen old wounds (he believes she set out to destroy him because she felt rejected; she looks for remorse in him so as to forgive his crime), the actors are forced to hurl clunky lines of dialogue with comically distorted faces more befitting TV soap operas.

It may be a deeply flawed adaptation, but as a nod to its theatrical roots, Heaven in the Dark will delight theatre fans with its casting of several current or former stage actors in small roles, including Chu Pak-him as Michelle’s sympathetic husband, Rosa Maria Velasco as a troubled church mate, Tyson Chak Hoi-tai as the judge, Anthony Wong Chau-sang as Marco’s defence counsel, and Dayo Wong Tze-wah as an eccentric-looking member of the courtroom audience.

Heaven in the Dark opens on March 24

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