I had already seen this movie months ago, before it was announced as a North American premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival. I came away thinking that The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful, Yang Ya Che's female gangster film, is one of the best Chinese-language movies of 2017. This movie won big at the Golden Horse Awards, the Asian equivalent of the Oscars. It won Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and the Audience Choice Award.
Set in 1990s Taiwan, the story follows antiques dealer and friend to the banking and political elite Madame Yang as she joins them in a highly lucrative but dodgy real estate investment scheme. Bank managers, inspectors, and officials have to be bribed, and Madame Yang's older daughter Ning is a seasoned seductress who can wrap those men around her little finger to get the right paperwork approved, giving them just the right amount of sex and bribery. Madame Yang's teenage daughter Chen is there to be the good girl, trained in the art of serving tea and looking prim. However, she has grown up watching her mother's machinations with increasing fascination, nursing a crush on the stable boy her best friend is dating. Everything seems to be coming along swimmingly, until the murders occur.
The murder throws the whole investment scheme into chaos. Money is suddenly inaccessible, and the politicians and bankers investing in the scheme are exposed in the media. The police start looking at everyone, even with the stable boy as the main suspect. And everything heads toward a grand tragedy.
Kara Hui is best known as an action heroine in scores of kung fu movies in the late '70s and '80s. Without any fight scenes here, she brings an air of imperious charisma to an icily calculating syndicate boss with all her layers: a mobster who's also a single mother and devoted Buddhist who tries to pray away the horrible acts she orders. Madame Yang might be one of the most evil women in the history of Cinema with how far she's willing to go to get power, money, and revenge against the people who looked down on her.
14-year-old Vicky Chen is impressive in the way she plays the increasingly warped and traumatized younger daughter who may not be as innocent as everyone thinks she is and might become the most vicious of them all. Wu Ke Xi is poignant as Ning, the older daughter who tries to numb her disgust and self-loathing in booze and drugs when her mother routinely pimps her out as the family's fixer.
This is a female mafia story told with a literary touch. Most of the violence occurs off screen. There's a touch of Brecht with a folksinger narrating the story, promising a tale of lies, love betrayed, ghosts, and blood. There's a hint of magical realism as themes of sin and karma place the story as a Buddhist moral fable. This is a world where love is weaponized and corrupted, and those who survive are trapped in Hell, cursed to suffer forever as punishment.
The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful premieres at the New York Asian Film Festival on July 5th. Tickets can be bought at the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.