BLACK CAT [1991]

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Directed by:
Written by: , ,
Starring: , , ,

AKA HAK MAU

HONG KONG

RUNNING TIME: 91 mins

AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera

Chinese-American drifter Catherine is working at a petrol station in New York City. When she gets into a row and fight with a lecherous customer, she shoots dead not just said customer but the owner of the place and a cop who comes to investigate. After undergoing police brutality, she escapes from the court house, only to be shot and wake up in a white room with a microchip in her head designed to unlock her physical potential. She’s the latest recruit of Brian, who works for a branch of the CIA that fakes people’s deaths then trains them to be super assassins. Catherine passes her training and is sent out into the big wide world to carry out her first hit….

No, this is not yet another version of Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal tale, it’s a Hong Kong take on Luc Besson’s very fine thriller La Femme Nikita which was remade in the United States as The Assassin [aka Point Of No Return] as well as leading to two TV shows. Stephen Shin’s version, the most brutal and fast paced of the three films, is the least known and seen, yet it redoes the French film with certainly more verve and invention than John Badham managed in 1993. The beats of the story are still there as are variations on most of the major scenes, but said variations tend to be pretty good, even if screenwriters Lam Wai-lun, Chan Bo-shun and Lam Tan-ping don’t seem to worked out certain things, as if the script was cobbled together in a rush, which would be nothing knew in Hong Kong cinema where films sometimes began shooting with little more than a bare outline. For example, would the CIA really be careless enough to place a new recruit in the place where she grew up so that there’s a good chance that a relative or a friend might recognise her? And somebody who can also have a serious migraine come on at any time? Hardly the most reliable of assassins. In fact the whole matter of the thing that’s the cause of these migraines, this microchip, doesn’t really serve any other purpose except to cause our heroine to never wear a bra. Nonetheless the fairly low budget piece has some visual flair and is held together by an amazingly strong performance by its lead Jade Leung, despite her being a model who’d never acted before, and who went on to play the part in three sequels. And when you’re watching, for example, an action scene set at a wedding where nearly every male guest seems to carry a firearm, things like awkward plotting and implausibility don’t really seem that important.

The plan was to officially remake the Besson film, but then the rights to the property were purchased by Warner Bros, so what did D&B Films do? They unofficially remade it. The first choice for the lead role was D & B studio action star Cynthia Khan, but she got mixed up in some Triad business, details of which are unspecified but it resulted in death threats against D & B and Khan was let go. Shooting took place in and around Vancouver doubling for in and around New York City, New York City itself, Hong Kong and somewhere in Japan in synch sound, which became common in Hong Kong cinema the following year with the release of Police Story 3: Supercop but which was unusual before. It was also shot in chronological order, which must have been very helpful for Leung despite the rather rushed one month and a half schedule consisting largely of sixteen hour days. She performed most of her own stunts and got hurt several times, most notably getting some burns when running from an explosion. Her love scene with Thomas Lam had to be shot thirteen times because the two, who were rolling around on the floor, kept rolling out of the view of the camera. The film was a hit in Hong Kong. Besson learnt of it in an very odd way. Shin tried to sell it at a festival to Gaumont Pictures which Besson worked for, not knowing that one of the people he was speaking to was Besson himself. After he saw the film he sued D&B films but a settlement was arrived at out of court. As for Badham, soon after seeing it he publicly criticised it for being a “scene by scene, shot by shot” remake, and said that his version would “expand the world” of La Femme Nikita. Quite frankly, he was talking a load of crap, seeing how his version is the one that’s virtually a “scene by scene, shot by shot”, re-do, not Shin’s.

We first saw a closeup of a face in silhouette against a blue background, and boy is the blue emphasis strong in this opening scene, though to be fair a lot of movies from the time employed it and it’s never quite as strong again in this one. The man is supposed to be American but is clearly an Eastern European trying an American accent, but it’s normal for some things to be a bit off in a Hong Kong movie set abroad, especially in terms of the acting; there’s one especially godawful performance here by a female news reporter who’s only in the thing for a few seconds but who lingers in the mind for far longer. Anyway, the man struts into the petrol station and harasses Catherine, though the owner also gets on her back for not actually doing her job. A couple of gropes from the visitor and he gets a fork jammed into his hand. Her boss chucks her out, then she says that she’s willing to give a blow job to the truck driver, but we know that she’s going to actually give him something else instead, though would anybody pay for a sexual favour from somebody who’s just stabbed their hand? An extensive fight begins which avoids any martial arts [in fact the whole film does] and just focuses on sheer brutality in the first of several scenes which I’m surprised didn’t get the film a Category 3 [adults only] rating. One dead man soon leads to two, then three, though Catherine is blacking out as she shoots the cop. That doesn’t stop her being seriously mistreated, from being chained to a toilet when she needs a wee to having the hell beaten out of her by a policewoman who we know is going to be nasty because Shin has her menacingly walk down a long corridor into the camera, the first of many white corridors in the first half of the film which also has very little dialogue, relying largely on visual storytelling. We’re never even told why an assassin tries to kill her so she can inadvertently escape before running into Brian.

Brian tells her that everyone thinks she’s dead and that she has a microchip in her head called Black Cat. She needs to train, such as being dragged along in a freezing cold swimming pool by some machine. “There’s a 44 Magnum, the most powerful bullets used today” says Simon to her at one point. Well, I guess he couldn’t say “the most powerful handgun in the world” as Dirty Harry wouldn’t have been too happy. Catherine develops an intense love for flowers, and it’s rather touching to see this in moments especially well played by Leung, though when Brian takes her to a daffodil-strewn field her pure joy is suddenly changed when she has to do her first job, a job which Simon deliberately makes difficult for her to carry out. This is Black Cat‘s equivalent of the memorable restaurant bit in La Femme Nikita, and it’s a real doozy with our heroine having to walk right up to the bride at a Jewish wedding and blow her away in front of everyone. She flees mass gunfire to a car, but it’s locked and then won’t start. What will she do? Of course she does manage to get away, and is then understandably angry when she sees Brian waiting for her, cool and relaxed as if nothing had happened. He tells her that this was actually just a test, but she’s passed and can now become a fully fledged assassin. So that’s alright then. She moves to Hong Kong with a new name – Erica – and gets a job as a photojournalist which is just a cover for her real job. A phone call to carry out a hit immediately is never far away, which has the potential to cause problems when she gets herself a boyfriend, conservationist Allen.

Leung successfully conveys the emotionless nature of the perfect assassin with a very chilling stare, who is still able to be tender when with Allen. Their opening moves are quite strange. When he first sees her, he takes photos of her and plasters them all over his wall, then she breaks into his house and amazingly isn’t put off by seeing said photos and seems to fall for him when she sees him play a harmonica just like her. As with his counterparts, the Allen character almost seems to be too good to be true and not seem like a match at all for Erica, yet she’s attracted by his gentleness, not to mention, perhaps, the knowledge that he’s not likely to be too angry if she had to sneak away for a few minutes to carry out a quick hit. But the most interesting relationship is the one between Erica and Brian, which is pushed slightly further than in the other two versions [something which almost makes up for there being no Cleaner]. Erica is clearly drawn to Brian, subtly played by Simon Yam at his most quietly menacing not to mention smartly dressed, and is probably even in love with him in a weird way [look at when she kisses him several times on the lips at one point], yet is also repelled by the fact that he’s enslaved and made her into a killer. As for him, he seems to have feelings for her but won’t let them get in the way and is probably most turned on by being in control of her. I’d like to see a version of this story where he and the female assassin get together. What an interesting dynamic that would be, and one that could end any number of ways, though Black Cat does still manage to tweak La Femma Nikita‘s ending in a fairly satisfying way, even if initially it seems as if the film suddenly stops.

Erica disguises herself as a photographer to pull off a kill in a nature park using a bullet that’s made of ice and leaves no trace, but needs to be fired within five seconds. Just as she’s about to pull the trigger, the person the target is with gets in the way and the five seconds pass. Then the other man moves out of the way and she still takes the shot and kills her target with no problem. Huh? What the hell was all the point of this five seconds stuff then? Later, she must kill somebody who’s visiting a construction site with only one small explosive charge. She plans to use the charge to cut a lift cable so the man will fall to his death, but then he gets back into his car to answer a call. So Erica climbs up a crane, swings its load of girders over the nearby road, and makes her way down the crane arm all the way down to the girders. She puts the charge there, shuffles back, climbs down, and sets the explosive off, causing the girders to fall on the car. While it’s exciting to watch Erica do all this with what seems like great ease, especially as Leung seems to be doing it all, it seems an absurdly complicated way to kill someone. Yet here, as in elsewhere, Shin and cinematographer Lee Kin-keung have an eye for a well composed shot and tend to linger on them a little more than was usual at the time too, even if the cheapness can’t help but intrude at times, such as a very rushed mock up of the interior of a plane which for exterior shots is represented by a real plane and a model which don’t look like each other at all. Danny Chung’s beaty music score is rather bland, even if it does attempt an Eric Serra-type sound in places. And I wonder why Hong Kong cinema romance music was so very similar for a few years? But, while it never attains the resonance of La Femme Nikita and Leung, despite her great efforts, can’t quite match Anne Parillaud, Black Cat does offer up a decent amount of thrills and surprises, proving that total rip-offs can be worthwhile endeavours after all.

Rating: ★★★★★★★½☆☆

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About Dr Lenera 1966 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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