November 6, 2014
The Adulteress – Hong Kong, 1962
In the opening scene of Han Xiang Li and Meng Hua Ho’s 1962 musical The Adulteress, we are told by way of a choir of singers that in the mid-1870’s a murder case caused a sensation in a small area known as Can Qian. As portrayed in the film, the case involved a rising scholar named Nai-wu Yang and Bai-cai Xiao, the wife of a struggling tofu vendor. In truth, the case is less about adultery than it is about lust and corruption, but adultery has always been the more sensational charge, while corruption is often viewed as being too commonplace to be truly shocking. As the film begins, Xi-Tung Liu (Bao Shu-Gao), the son of the local magistrate, is venting his frustration to the local apothecary. His complaint: that Xiao (Li Hua Li) won’t give him the time of day. The solution: a potion that, according to the apothecary, will make even the most virtuous of women completely lose her inhibitions. It is an awkward beginning, especially for a movie that wants to be taken seriously as a drama, yet it adequately establishes the characteristics of both the film’s female protagonist and its chief villain.
The situation is complicated further by the never-ending taunts of the area’s residents, who never cease to remind Xiao’s husband, Xiao-da Ge (Mu Chu), that his wife loved another man before him. Naturally, that man is Nai-wu Yang (Shan Kwan), and despite the fact the Yang is married, has a child, and seems like quite a respectable person, Mr. Ge becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife and Yang are having an affair. Such feelings enable Liu to operate with virtual impunity, for his actions can be quickly attributed to Yang. This of course sets the scene for jealousy, rage, murder, and eventually injustice on a shockingly massive scale.
There is much to praise The Adulteress for, from its excellent use of vivid colors and light to its creative use of musical numbers. These are used not only to move the story forward but in one clever bit to allow viewers to hear a character’s thought process during a pivotal moment in the film. The film’s directors also make good use of short shots that convey ironic messages to the audience. In one such moment, they focus their camera on a sign in the courtroom that read “Just and Fair.” Few words have been further from the truth.
After an intriguing first half, during which diabolical schemes are set in motion as those who are entrusted with protecting the innocent devise ways to shield the guilty, the film essentially becomes a courtroom drama. In this part of the film, we see the original case against Yang and Xiao, as well as their subsequent attempts at winning an appeal. While this part of the film is a bit repetitive, it is also quite emotional. To me, what was surprising most of all was just how dramatic and violent this part of the film is. For some time, it appears as if every judge the protagonists come before believes not only that torture is an acceptable means of extracting a confession but that confessions received as a result of torture are both admissible and truthful. Practically every judge utters a variation of the refrain if you didn’t do it, why did you confess either before or after ordering one of the defendants to be inflicted with physical punishment. Such scenes would be shocking in most films; in a musical, they are practically unheard of.
The acting is particularly strong throughout the film. Li creates a character that is on the one hand extremely moral yet on the other hand quite fearful, and the scenes in which she is called upon to demonstrate her character’s conflicted emotions are quite powerful. Kwan has an equally challenging part, for he must convincingly play Yang at two stages. In the first, he is strong, defiant, and upright; later, he is a man whose spirit and body has been broken. He plays both sides equally well. It helps that he is able to play against actors so skilled at coming across as uncaring and corrupt, actors such as Chih-Ching Yang (Shi-Tong Liu), Yunzhong Li (Counsel Wang), and Kuang Chao Chiang (Qian Bao-sheng)
As with many films of this sort, viewers are at the mercy of the final product, and as with many releases of Chinese films from this period, the final product has problems. The most glaring of these has to do with the subtitles. While more accurate than those found on other DVDs, the subtitles unfortunately have frequent misspellings throughout the film, and this is inexcusable in this day and age. Even a cursory review of the subtitles prior to the release of the disc should have been enough for someone to spot that the letter I was frequently not capitalized or that the letter I was often erroneously used at the beginning of words. Really, who in their right mind would look at iamb and think that was a word? In addition, there are occasional reminders of the perils of relying on thesauruses during the translation process. An example: one character complains of something “leaving me so perturbed.” This translation would only seem justified if the character who spoke the line had an enormously rich vocabulary. He doesn’t. And there is simply no reason whatsoever for every sound made by the film’s chorus to be translated. For example, whenever someone is brought before the judges, the chorus sings the same line, which was transcribed as “Wei wu.” It’s anyone’s guess what this is supposed to mean.
Still, as I am fond of saying in situations such as this one, an imperfect DVD of a otherwise fine movie is better than no DVD at all, and The Adulteress remains a well structured, thought-provoking film. It weaves an intricate tale involving the powerful and the powerless and shows what can happen when corruption is allowed to pervade the government and the legal system. In addition, it demonstrates the consequences of evil allowed to go unchecked and the ability of unbridled obsession to bring about misery. Unfortunately, these are messages that are still very relevant in today’s society. (on DVD in Region 3)
3 and a half stars
*The Adulteress is in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.