'Nessun Dorma': Hong Kong Review

Nessun Dorma - H 2016
Hong Kong International Film Festival
Some shall sleep.

Director Herman Yau takes a break from thematically charged filmmaking for an old-fashioned noirish thriller and his second HKIFF premiere in 2016.

Neither an icy princess nor a lack of sleeping really come into play, though writers Erica Li and Zendodric manage to slip three riddles into the final act of Herman Yau’s Nessun Dorma, the director’s second film to premiere at the 40th HKIFF. A pulpy, unchallenging slice of genre entertainment, this is the kind of film viewers will enjoy for what it is and forget quickly. A good fit for genre festivals, Nessun Dorma could find a life at home in Hong Kong on the right (thin) weekend, but beyond that its prospects seem only moderate, assuming Yau’s name above the title generate interest in niche overseas markets.

Nessun Dorma is a classic bit of action exploitation; a twisty revenge thriller with a long con at its narrative core, and no real surprises for students of the genre. The story begins with Mo-Chit (Andy Hui, last seen in 2012’s I Love Hong Kong) visiting Jasmine (Janice Man, Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After) in hospital and tenderly kissing her comatose brow before slipping back in time to see Jasmine enjoying a night at Turandot with her fiance Vincent (Lam Ka-Tung, Trivisa). After receiving a mysterious package before heading up to her flat, she hops in her car and drives off to confront the package’s sender — the aforementioned Mo-Chit. They argue, she storms out, and is promptly kidnapped when she stops for a felled tree (it’s a dark and stormy night, of course).

That’s the tip of the iceberg as far as setup goes, and for the most part it’s engaging enough. Jasmine’s ordeal gets worse when she wakes up tied to a bed, naked, and is repeatedly tortured by bright lights at random moments. A masked man peeks through a door slat, and at one point unbinds a wrist. This cat and mouse game goes back and forth for some hours, maybe days — time is fuzzy — and all in all the captivity sequence is reasonably affecting, tapping into fears of helplessness and vulnerability. That said, it could also be called exploitive given Man’s state of undress.

Then Jasmine wakes up outside her apartment building one morning with no idea how she got there. She’s sure she’s been raped. Now (unbelievably) a matter of hours before her wedding, Jasmine has to deal with her trauma, an overbearing mother (Candice Yu), and a fiance she has doubts about. Her confidant is Mo-Chit, and in the wake of a disastrous wedding night, she vows to find her kidnapper and reunite with Mo-Chit for good.

There’s a lot of plot in Nessun Dorma, much of it a bit baffling and hardly any of it relating to Turandot or the famous aria. Jasmine is hardly a princess — she runs a dog shelter — and neither Vincent nor Mo-Chit is a prince, though the latter does have a thick backstory that will tip off astute viewers as to the film’s direction. Vincent is, naturally, a pig and all three characters connect more than they initially appear to. Yau and much of his regular crew — cinematographer Joe Chan, editor Azrael Chung, composer Brother Hung, turning it up to 11 — don’t play with too many of the conventions of the noir-style thriller in Nessun Dorma; it’s all very standard stuff, though Jasmine’s femme-fatale part barely gets started before it’s nipped in the bud. Li, who’s collaborated with Yau on his Ip Man films and 2014’s divisive Sara, pulls a narrative fast one a few times — recasting some of Mo-Chit’s perceptions is a stretch — and the reluctant romance cliche is as tired as they come. It’s particularly jarring to have Mo-Chit and Jasmine engage in some “torrid” shower sex and then have him tuck her into bed like a 5-year-old (WTF?). Man seems game if a little blank at times, occasionally coming across as the wrong kind of princess, and Hui has never been the most electrifying of actors, so it’s the reliable Lam to the rescue, and indeed he seems to be reveling in his caddish role. Tech specs are fine across the board.

Production company: Sun Entertainment Culture, Homemade Holdings, Sil-Metropole Organisation

Cast: Andy Hui, Janice Man, Lam Ka-Tung, Wilfred Lau, Jacky Cai, Tarah Chan, Phat Chan, Brian lee, Candice Yu

Director: Herman Yau

Screenwriter: Erica Li, Zendodric, based on the book by Li

Producer: Paco Wong, Ren Yue, Stanley Tong

Executive producer: Alvin Chau, Alex Dong, Cheng Yi Qi

Director of photography: Joe Chan

Production designer: Tony Yu

Costume designer: William Fung

Editor: Azrael Chung

Music: Brother Hung

World sales: Bravos Pictures

In Cantonese

No rating, 90 minutes