Tales from the Dark 2
Hong Kong, 2013, colour, 2.35:1, 87 mins.
Directors: Chen Jiashang 陈嘉上 [Gordon Chan] (I), Liu Guochang 刘国昌 [Lawrence Ah Mon] (II), Guan Weipeng 关维鹏 [Teddy Robin] (III).
Two strong stories bookend a weak central one in this second batch of Hong Kong “horror” yarns.
Hong Kong, the present day. I: Pillow 枕妖. A seemingly happy husband and wife, Ruan Haokang (Lin Jiadong) and Zou Jingyi (Chen Fala), have a huge row one evening when he discovers she’s been monitoring his text messages. A week later she tells her work colleague Meibao (Jiang Zuman) that he’s still missing after walking out on her. Unable to sleep, Zou Jingyi buys a special medicinal pillow which works wonders and provides her with a whole new fantasy life. II: Hide and Seek 迷藏. A group of teenagers, led by Fattie Qiang (Chen Yaorong) and Chashao (Cen Jiaqi), goes back to the old school from which they all graduated in 2003 and which is now due for demolition. There they meet the old caretaker, Chen (Li Hanchi), who warns them to leave before dark. Ignoring his warning, they play a game of ghostly hide-and-seek. III: Black Umbrella 黑伞. On the 15th night of the seventh month, the Ghost Festival, old Uncle Lau (Guan Weipeng) takes a minibus to Wangjiao [Mong Kok] district, helping people along the way, including a woman crossing the road (Huang Xiahui) and a minibus driver (Zhang Guoqiang) who’s held up by a druggie robber (Guan Chuyao). Arriving in Wangjiao, he helps young Mainland prostitute Zhenni (Mo Qiwen) when she twists her ankle; but when they arrive back at her flat, circumstances change.
Released only four weeks after the first, this second batch of “horror” yarns adapted from short stories by prolific Hong Kong writer Li Bihua 李碧华 [Lilian Lee] (Rouge 胭脂扣, 1988; Farewell My Concubine 霸王别姬, 1993) is less evenly balanced and 25 minutes shorter overall, but is bookended by two strong, characterful segments that make it worth watching. Like its predecessor, Tales from the Dark 2 李碧华鬼魅系列 奇幻夜 is made by an older generation of local names, with two, writer-director Liu Guochang 刘国昌 [Lawrence Ah Mon] and actor-singer-director Guan Weipeng 关维鹏 [Teddy Robin], well into their 60s. Their episodes have a traditional, homegrown feel – in a positive way in Guan’s case, in a negative way in Liu’s – that’s similar to TFTD1. The most pleasant surprise is that the best-developed segment comes from Chen Jiashang 陈嘉上 [Gordon Chan] – the “youngster” of the group, in his early 50s – whose feature films during the past decade or so have been very wobbly indeed.
Chen’s Pillow 枕妖, entirely set in clean, cool interiors beautifully caught by d.p. Chen Zhiying 陈志英 (Koma 救命, 2004; The Bullet Vanishes 消失的子弹, 2012), goes way beyond the spirit world of the other stories in the series, with a very modern, sexually-charged dreaminess across its 36 minutes. Chen Jiashang’s script has a classic short-story structure, opening with a feint, following that with a couple of neat twists, and wrapping up the story as soon as it’s run its course. The episode’s Chinese title literally means “Pillow Demon”, following a young wife (China-born, US-raised TV actress Chen Fala 陈法拉) whose “insomnia”, following the disappearance of her husband, is cured in a very special way by a medicinal pillow. Less about ghostly superstition and more about sexual obsession, it benefits from Chen Jiashang’s uncharacteristically focused direction, Chen Fala’s convincingly bipolar performance and a sustained tension that falters only at the very end.
After that strong start, the quality level plummets with Liu’s Hide and Seek 迷藏, an utterly routine youngsters-in-a-haunted-school story that has a retro 1980s flavour (for no perceptible reason) and just about staggers across 26 minutes. The closer, Black Umbrella 黑伞, directed by and starring veteran performer Guan, is, like the segment by actor-director Ren Dahua 任达华 [Simon Yam] in TFTD1, the only one with a script credited to Li herself and puts the whole movie back on track, albeit briefly.
The shortest but most richly atmospheric of the three segments – with especially good night-streets photography by Guan Zhiyao 关智耀 [Jason Kwan] – Umbrella is a miniature shaggy-dog story centred on an old man (Guan himself, in a wonderfully mellow performance) who goes round trying to do good turns to Kowloon’s grumpy citizens during the mid-summer Ghost Festival. All goes kind-of-okay until he meets a Mainland hooker (Mo Qiwen 莫绮雯, Due West: Our Sex Journey 一路向西, 2012) with a bad case of homesickness. The segment packs in more character, atmosphere and explicit horror than the two previous episodes combined, but its brief 20 minutes give it a throwaway feel that’s more suited to an opener than a closer.
The film’s Chinese title means “Li Bihua’s Ghosts & Demons Series: Fantastic Nights”. The source of the stories (and the film’s title) is the first book in a five-volume, 2008 collection that gathers together ghost tales by Li originally published in newspaper form.
Presented by Edko Films (HK), Movie Addict Productions (HK). Produced by Movie Addict Productions (HK).
Script: Chen Jiashang [Gordon Chan] (I); Deng Hanqiang (II); Li Bihua [Lilian Lee] (III). First-draft script: Zhu Jieying (II); Ailisi, He Wenlong (III). Short stories: Li Bihua [Lilian Lee]. Photography: Chen Zhiying (I); Wade Muller (II); Guan Zhiyao [Jason Kwan] (III). Editing: Chen Qihe [Chan Ki-hop] (I); Liu Guochang [Lawrence Ah Mon] (II); Li Dongquan [Wenders Li] (III). Music: Kawai Kenji. Production design: Xi Zhongwen [Yee Chung-man], Huang Bingyao [Pater Wong]. Art direction: Li Deya, Zeng Jiabi. Costume design: Chen Gufang [Shirley Chan]. Sound: Chen Zhijian (I, III); He Sizhan (II); Zhu Zhixia, Ye Junhao. Action: Yi Tianxiong (III). Visual effects: Weng Guoxian (yinyung.co). Second-unit direction: Zhou Sun [Chris Chow] (III). Second-unit photography: He Jiahui (III).
Cast: I: Chen Fala (Zou Jingyi), Lin Jiadong [Gordon Lam] (Ruan Haokang, Zou Jingyi’s husband), He Huachao (Guan, doctor), Jiang Zuman (Meibao/Mabel, Zou Jingyi’s work colleague), Lin Chaorong (shopkeeper), Yan Yi’en (policeman), Guo Hui (policewoman). II: Chen Yaorong (Fattie Qiang), Cen Jiaqi (Chashao), Tan Qiqi (Ceci), Zhang Yingqin (Princess), Yudan (Da), Tang Jieliang (elder brother/C Hing), Huang Yihao (Jingqing/Sissy), Chen Peiyan (Xibao/Little Bo, Ceci’s younger sister), Liang Jiajin (Li, former teacher), Li Hanchi (Chen, old caretaker), Lin Shuzhen (headmaster), Chen Liling (Fattie Qiang’s mother), Jiao Haoxuan (thin Fattie Qiang in mirror), Feng Yinfang, Yu Jinzhu (ghosts in school). III: Guan Weipeng [Teddy Robin] (Uncle Lau), Mo Qiwen (Zhenni/Jenny), Zhang Guoqiang (minibus driver), Guan Chuyao (druggie robber), Yin Yangming (Bo, Zhenni’s landlord), Huang Xiahui (woman in red), Yi Tianxiong (Qiang, Zhenni’s pimp), He Jiahua (gambler), Luo Zhixing (Shui), Huang Keying (girl ghost), Li Min (girl ghost’s mother), Liang Zhi (girl ghost’s father).
Release: Hong Kong, 8 Aug 2013.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 14 Oct 2013.)