Dir: Ann Hui. China. 2004. 109mins.

A word of warning for viewers of a nervous disposition: there is precious little mercy in this lifetime for anyone, especially the men, connected with the heroine An Xin. But Goddess Of Mercy is not a man-hating diatribe. Experienced director Ann Hui delivers an understated treatise about fate and retribution focused on a woman who could have done better for herself, but has to live with the consequences of some unfortunate choices.

A quality drama, Goddess premiered in the Forum section of the Berlinale, was joint opening film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and is now scheduled to appear in Verona, Melbourne and Montreal. With a probable female bias, theatrical prospects look strongest in Asia, where there is name recognition for Hong Kong star Vicky Zhao Wei and heart-throb Nicholas Tse Ting-Fung, who appears in a secondary role.

The story gets rolling with a focus on a Beijing yuppie (Liu) who against the odds hooks up with his female martial arts coach (Zhao). He loses his wife and his high-powered job and the penniless pair are obliged to bring up her sick child. Only then do the audience discover that it was not always this way - she used to be a policewoman, climbing the ranks as a drugs enforcement agent in the provinces. Much of the rest of the film is then told in a prolonged flashback.

An Xin is committed to the verve and moral heroism of her pistol-toting job, but there is a hole in her love life. Engaged to a journalist (Chen) who lives miles away, she allows herself to be seduced by an attractive younger man, Mao (Tse). She soon finds herself part of a drugs bust that wipes out his parents and puts Mao in jail. Details of their affair emerge, allowing Mao to win an appeal hearing and begin a quest for revenge.

With her fiance killed, An Xin flees to Beijing and the story leaps forward to the present. But she remains on the run and there is further heartbreak and more bloodshed.

For all the plot twists and the narrative time-warp, Goddess is actually a quiet film, which draws strength from Hui's cold precision. Despite a few noisy gun battles, the most painful part to watch is the crumbling life of a woman of integrity and intelligence, the consequence of an error that is typically human and at worst misguided.

Although male characters outnumber females, like Thomas Hardy's Tess Of The d'Urbervilles, this is a film dominated by women and the downward-heading trajectory of their fate. This is not surprising given that it was written by Hong Kong's top dramatic screenwriter, Ivy Ho, and directed by one of the icons of Hong Kong art-house cinema.

Hui keeps things polished and moving along, calmly mixing up rough rural interiors with fleeting images of China's beautiful, country landscapes. Her palette runs from a colourful slow-mo when An Xin encounters Mao at a village water festival, to playful riverside fun and trains hurtling along hillside tracks.

Although there is a wise-man role for the recurring charm of police captain Pan (Sun), the lynchpin of the act is the often under-rated Zhao, a TV actress whose star as a dramatic film actor is still rising. She has a curious kind of beauty, long-faced and aquiline, but with a generous, almost fleshy mouth that conveys a range of emotions from 'woman warrior' to love cheat and lonely mother.

At the end, it is not clear if An Xin survives. Moralists will enjoy debating whether she deserved to die or deserved to survive and live out the rest of her life dogged by guilt and remorse.

Prods: Yang Buting, Li Balun
Prod cos:
China Film Group Corporation, Beijing Film Studio, Beijing Chengchengyinglian Film & TV Co Ltd, Century Hero Film Investment Co Ltd
Int'l sales:
Universe International Distribution. +852-2437 2601
Yang Buting, Li Balun
Ivy Ho, based on novel by Hai Nan
Kwan Pun Leung
Prod des:
Li Zhouyi
Zhou Ying
Zhao Lin
Vicky Zhao Wei, Nicholas Tse Ting-Fung, Liu Yun-Long, Sun Hai-Ying, Chen Jian-Bin