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One suspects writer-director Carol Lai may have harboured some Black Swan ambitions with a tale that also centers around a stage practitioner who embarks on an unwitting destructive journey when playing a role to die for. The Second Woman, whose Chinese title Romance Riddle may hold better clues as to how this film developed, being more of a guessing game that threw constant clues rather than a overly romantic film about twins falling in love with a man who decided it's perfectly OK to string both women along, until he discovers that this spells double trouble.
Nan (Shawn Yue) and Hui Bao (Shu Qi) are a romantic couple in the stage acting profession. He is of leading man material, but his girlfriend Bao is at best, when his influence isn't waning and his leading lady is in a good mood, the supporting actress in the bid budgeted production of Legend of the Plum Blossom, about a scholar falling in love with two women in a supernatural tale about spirits and possession. With the stage being a mirror in life, Nan soon finds himself also falling in love with Hui Bao's older twin sister Hui Xiang (Shu Qi again), who doesn't resist his advances, being probably more attractive to him in terms of character, the demure though more emotionally charged compared to the relatively immature Bao.
Carrying out an affair with Hui Xiang while maintaining his relationship with Hui Bao, you know Nan's just asking for it when the two women sense a shift in attitudes, especially when they start to clash over Xiang's determined takeover of Bao's stage life when the latter falls sick before her final performance, and Xiang's performance wins accolades that Bao can only dream of. Jealousy in their professional lives, yes, but when you throw a man into the picture, things can get messy. They confront each other, and as it turns out, one of them emerges the victor, but who? That's when the movie kicks into full gear to keep you guessing just who Shu Qi is playing. While the first act introduces us to the two distinct sisters with their differences clearly defined in character and physical outlook - one wears her hair constantly up, and the other letting it down - these are indeed superficial changes should anyone decide to take over the role of the other and dress in similar fashion. And since both are actresses, or an actress wannabe, becoming the sister is nothing impossible, keeping up the Riddle and mystery in the title as to which of the two sisters Shu Qi is playing, since it involves an open ended possible murder mystery that happened in the deep sea thrown in as well, with Xiang mysteriously missing, but not before calling a neighbour to look after her blind mom when she's away on business.
Is she actually Bao who had gotten rid of her sister Xiang, or is she Xiang who had usurped Bao's position? Or is Xiang deranged as the first scene would have suggested, schizophrenia and all, or worst, the story having the gall to pull a rug from under all our feet to suggest they may even be the same person? As the film goes on with Nan's investigative friend and his sister going all out to seek the truth while Nan continues to string Bao/Xiang along to reveal everything, but frankly up until a certain time you'd stop caring, and decide to just enjoy Shu Qi's performance taking up characteristics from both twins.
And that I suppose sounded the death knell for the mystery it wanted to build up, because it didn't manage to sustain an interest exactly who of the two women we're seeing on screen. Carol Lai also chose to mix things up with her direction, blurring the line between the lives of the characters on stage and outside of it. While the stage play deals with supernatural possession, suggestions do creep into her story outside of the stage, with constant jump cuts and eerie atmospherics contributing to suggestions that we may see what's on stage being repeated in real life given parallels that are converging. This also mirrors the production as well, being undecided whether to be a psychological thriller, or an outright horror film given its numerous jump cuts intended to scare.
The game is up when the filmmakers realize that they have dug a hole so deep that the only way out is to have two characters, whose value to the film is saved entirely for the finale, to explain everything in very verbatim terms like a sort of cheat sheet in spilling the beans, inclusive of new scenes yet to be seen to allow for the connection of the dots, spoonfeeding the audience in the hopes of not letting the slightest of clues go unnoticed, and hopefully to make sense of everything else that had transpired, including a found trenchcoat at sea, a haunted, abandoned theatre and a blind mom who for all her heightened senses and years spent on motherhood and weaning her twins, couldn't tell them apart. Perhaps a tighter story could be crafted from its promising premise if there's a bold leap of faith in a more sophisticated audience capable of piecing everything together themselves.
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