|Say what you will about real estate developer/filmmaker Dennis Law, but he really is one of the few remaining Hong Kong directors around. With his own production company funded by his other business ventures, Law has resisted the temptation for China-safe co-productions and churned out rare Category III films such as Fatal Move and Herman Yau’s Gong Tau, on which Law reportedly footed the bill and let Yau go as far as he wanted.
However, while Dennis Law is a filmmaker with good intentions, he has very little filmmaking skill. The same can be said for Law’s latest, A Very Short Life. Law takes on his darkest subject yet with a morality tale about child molestation and the effects of turning a blind eye to it. Will Law test the boundaries of Cat-III filmmaking with his taboo theme, or will he actually tone down his filmmaking excess and approach this tough issue with some degree of sensitivity?
The latter does somewhat occur in A Very Short Life. Despite a sensational advertising campaign (one ad slogan reads “You’re not allowed to not watch it!”), Law has the decency to handle the subject without going over-the-top. Much of the child molestation scenes are, thankfully, merely suggested and never explicit. Instead, Law saves his Cat-III ammo for the criminals, mainly Becky Lee (TV star Leila Tong), a mother charged with the death of her 11-year old daughter. The case is told in a series of flashbacks narrated by policewoman Cat (Pinky Cheung) to a real estate developer/filmmaker named Dennis Law.
That’s right, in one of the many strange directorial decisions Law makes as the film's sole creator, the story is framed around himself (played by Eddie Cheung) listening to a policewoman’s story at a party - perhaps because child molestation cases are apparently good party chatter in Hong Kong these days. This self-referential touch only adds to the strangeness of the proceedings. For example, after the film opens on the usual “this film is purely fiction” disclaimer, the film’s first line is “This is a true story.” Someone should probably have checked the final cut for conflicting messages like these - and that someone should have been the writer-director-producer. Even the editor could’ve said something.
Back at the police station, Becky has already admitted to accidentally killing her daughter, but the scars on the young girl’s body have high ranking commissioner Josephine Wong (Maggie Siu, channeling her character from Eye in the Sky) convinced that something shadier happened in the household. This results in an extended interrogation sequence where Josephine and her team of tough policewomen physically and mentally torture Becky into admitting that she knew her husband (a slimy and creepy Samuel Pang) was molesting her daughter. Since the case is told after the fact, you know that Becky will eventually confess. The cops are so righteous and competent here that this could easily have been a China-safe film had the child molestation stuff been taken out.
Then again, there’s not much in the film to really take out. Even running under 90 minutes, A Very Short Life doesn’t have much of a story to tell, and Law seems to know that. In addition to half the film being set entirely in the police station, (with most of that section taking place in only one room), the film features what has now become Law’s trademark: unrelated scenes that get drawn out way past their point of relevance. You may not care about why the Law character is two hours late to a party or how Mao likes to drink beer with a plastic straw, but Law offers those details anyway.
Even the relevant details are drawn out too long, especially during an attempted suicide scene that could've been shocking and disturbing had it ended in 30 seconds. Instead, the scene is extended to an agonizing two minutes, during which shocking and disturbing quickly turn into over-the-top thanks to a liberal use of cgi blood. If there's ever was a movie that practices a total lack of storytelling efficiency and economy, that movie may be A Very Short Life.
Law remains a filmmaker who only has money to ignore the Chinese market, and not enough to hire a decent editor or script consultant. The lacking filmmaking is especially unfortunate as there are some good things going for the film. The performances are solid, especially Maggie Siu’s commanding turn as the angry commissioner. Also, Leila Tong pulls off her demanding role surprisingly well, especially since she spends most of her performance being tortured. Law does convey the shocking impact of his taboo subject without ever exploiting it or taking it too far. However, a mountain of good intentions can't get past bad filmmaking, and A Very Short Life has that in spades. (Kevin Ma, 2009)