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Review: Tales from the Dark 1 (2013)

Tales from the Dark 1

李碧华鬼魅系列  迷离夜

Hong Kong, 2013, colour, 2.35:1 (I)/16:9 (II, III), 112 mins.

Directors: Ren Dahua 任达华 [Simon Yam] (I), Li Zhiyi 李志毅 [Lee Chi-ngai] (II), Chen Guo 陈果 [Fruit Chan] (III).

Rating: 6/10.

Hong Kong ghost-story collection isn’t very scary but has a satisfyingly homely feel.

STORY

Hong Kong, the present day. I: Stolen Goods 赃物. Hard up, plagued by ghosts and half-crazed from lack of sleep, Guan Fuqiang (Ren Dahua) imagines he is being followed around by ghosts. After being sacked from a construction job for arriving late due to a traffic accident, he’s then sacked from his next job at a small restaurant. To make some money, he has the idea of stealing funerary urns and demanding HK$50,000 from the families for their return. One caller accepts his deal, but with major consequences for Guan Fuqiang. II: A Word in the Palm 放手. Fortune-teller He Ke (Liang Jiahui) tells his estranged wife (Tong Ailing) that he’s decided to retire and study Chinese music. But he cannot shake his ability to see ghosts and, when high-school girl Chen Xiaoting (Yan Zhuoling), comes by his shop, he thinks she may be the ghost of a teenager who recently committed suicide after getting pregnant by her swimming teacher (Li Yuyang). With the help of ditzy occultist Lan (Chen Huilin), who has a shop selling crystals next door, he sets out to solve the mystery. III: Jing Zhe 惊蛰. On 5 Mar – the start of the third solar term, the Waking of Insects (jīngzhé) – a wealthy woman (Gu Meihua) visits Canal Road Flyover in Wanzai [Wan Chai] district to get a street fortune-teller, Zhu (Shao Yinyin), to perform the ancient practice of “villain-beating” on a photo of a woman who “stole” her son from her affections. Later, as she’s packing up for the night, Zhu has a final customer, a strange-looking young woman (Chen Jing) who asks her to “beat” a group of people (three men and a woman) who did her some unspecified wrong.

REVIEW

A collection of three ghost tales, drawn 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), Tales from the Dark 1 李碧华鬼魅系列  迷离夜 is hardly likely to give anyone sleepless nights but has a satisfyingly traditional feel that relies on character interplay more than thrills and spills. It’s notable for the directing reins being handed not to young tyros but to three names well into their 50s, two of whom (Chen Guo 陈果 [Fruit Chan], Li Zhiyi 李志毅 [Lee Chi-ngai]) have virtually disappeared during the past decade and one of whom (actor Ren Dahua 任达华 [Simon Yam]) hasn’t directed at all, despite being a gifted amateur photographer. The result is a portmanteau movie with a familiar, homely vibe – another example of Hong Kong cinema looking back rather than forward (recalling “horror” films of the 1980s and early 1990s) and strongly rooted in local archetypes, beliefs and the territory’s urban landscape.

Li Bihua’s special interest in the Chinese spirit world co-existing with the present, rather than being a separate realm, enhances the fact that the tales are more about superstition – here, the ability to see ghosts – than regular “horror”. Each story comes with a proverb attached, drawing lessons from the foregoing events.

The best, by a hair’s breadth, is the first, Stolen Goods 赃物, which also marks the directing debut of actor Ren. The story of a half-crazed, unemployed man who’s haunted by ghosts and then gets the idea of stealing funerary jars and selling them back to the families, it’s restlessly shot and played like a bad waking dream, maintaining a continuous sense of semi-delirium across its 36 minutes. Li is billed as “script advisor” on the whole film but she takes a solo writing credit for this segment, which comes the closest to showing the spirit and human worlds inextricably intertwined. The main weakness is Ren casting himself in the lead role: though he’s now in his late 50s, and technically ready for less glamorous character roles, he too often looks here like he’s over-acting rather than really getting under the skin of a mad, gibbering loner. Ren’s performance is distracting but the segment as a whole still has a nice sense of shape and direction.

Running it a close second is A Word in the Palm 放手 (41 mins.), the first film by writer-director Li Zhiyi in four years and his first Chinese-language movie since Magic Kitchen 魔幻厨房 (2004). Centred on an ageing fortune-teller (Liang Jiahui 梁家辉 [Tony Leung Ka-fai]) whose life has been plagued by being able to see ghosts, it’s played for a mixture of drama and comedy, with Chen Huilin 陈慧琳 [Kelly Chen] (as a wacky occultist in goofy glasses) especially ramping up the latter. Li, who’s best known for his collaborations with Chen Kexin 陈可辛 [Peter Chan] in the early 1990s (Tom, Dick, and Hairy 风尘三侠, 1993; He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father 新难兄难弟, 1993), delivers a regular-looking movie based more on character interplay than on horror, and largely turns it over to Liang’s mellow performance of a man on the brink of retirement. The original title means “Letting Go”, which sums up the point of the tale much better than the awkward English title.

Relatively the weakest of the three – in that it’s the least developed – is Chen Guo’s Jing Zhe 惊蛰 (30 mins.), which uses the Mandarin name for a period in early spring when nature first stirs after winter and personal accounts can be settled. It’s the slim tale of an old roadside fortune-teller (veteran Shao Yinyin 邵音音 [Susan Shaw, aka Yum Yum Shaw in her early years]) who’s asked by a weird-looking young woman (Chen Jing 陈静, memorable as “Popping Candy” in Vulgaria 低俗喜剧, 2012) to perform a traditional curse on a group of people who wronged her. Chen Guo goes for a grubby, almost documentary look among the roadside denizens of the Canal Road Flyover in Wanzai [Wan Chai] that’s a nice change of tone after the previous two segments; but as a short story it’s structurally unbalanced, taking too long to get to the point (after a long sequence with actress Gu Meihua 顾美华 [Josephine Koo] as an earlier client) and with a sudden resolution that relies on visual effects and violence rather than emotional release. As he proved with his last Chinese-language feature, Dumplings 饺子 (2004, co-written with Li Bihua), Chen does know his horror; but Jing Zhe needs at least a further 10 minutes of fleshing out to work properly.

Technical contributions are mostly fine throughout, with the best work coming from d.p. Guan Zhiyao 关智耀 [Jason Kwan] (who’s done several films for Peng Haoxiang 彭浩翔 [Pang Ho-cheung]) in the widescreen first segment and Wade Muller (Mindfulness and Murder ศพไม่เงียบ, 2011; Triad 扎职, 2012) in the second. Production design, especially in the first story, is suitably atmospheric. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the score, which is another exercise in sonic padding by Japan’s Kawai Kenji 川井 憲次.

The original title means “Li Bihua’s Ghosts & Demons Series: Blurry Nights”. The source of the stories (and the film’s Chinese title) is the second book in a five-volume, 2008 collection that gathers together ghost tales by Li originally published in newspaper form. A second movie in the series, Tales from the Dark 2 李碧华鬼魅系列  奇幻夜 , was released in Hong Kong four weeks later.

CREDITS

Presented by Edko Films (HK), Movie Addict Productions (HK). Produced by Movie Addict Productions (HK).

Script: Li Bihua [Lilian Lee] (I); Li Zhiyi [Lee Chi-ngai] (II); Chen Guo [Fruit Chan] (III). Short stories: Li Bihua [Lilian Lee] (2008). Photography: Guan Zhiyao [Jason Kwan] (I); Wade Muller (II); Lin Huaquan (III). Editing: Kuang Zhiliang, Li Jiarong (I); Li Zhiyi [Lee Chi-ngai] (II); Chen Guo [Fruit Chan] (III). Music: Kawai Kenji. Production design: Xi Zhongwen [Yee Chung-man], Huang Bingyao [Pater Wong]. Art direction: Li Deya (I); Zeng Jiabi. Costume design: Chen Gufang [Shirley Chan]. Sound: Chen Zhijian (I); He Sizhan (II); Xu Shihai (III); Zhu Zhixia, Ye Junhao. Action: Li Zhaoguang (I); Chen Zhongtai (III). Visual effects: Weng Guoxian (yinyung.co).

Cast: I: Ren Dahua [Simon Yam] (Guan Fuqiang), Yuan Qiu (restaurant owner), Shao Meiqi [Maggie Shiu] (Guo Yongni, real-estate agent), Luo Yingjun [Felix Lok] (Zhu Yongjie, Guo Yongni’s husband), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (Boss Lee, greedy ghost), Wang Zixuan (younger policeman), Chen Xiaoman, Chen Xiaorou (girl ghosts), Yuan Fuhua (older policeman), Ma Yucheng, Ho Shiwen, Li Lijun (ghosts), Liang Zhiguang (foreman), Liang Zhuomei (tailor), Huang Qianyin, Hu Yixin (flat viewers); II: Liang Jiahui [Tony Leung Ka-fai] (He Ke), Chen Huilin [Kelly Chen] (Lan), Tong Ailing (He Ke’s wife), Yan Zhuoling (Chen Xiaoting), Li Yuyang (Zhang Jiajun), Chen Ying (Zhang Jiajun’s wife), Yang Siya (beautiful client), Hu Yixin (Guang, waiter), Shen Liangjie (Bin/Ben, He Ke’s son), Ouyang Yongwen (customer), Guo Zhiqiao, Luo Yilin (swimmers); III: Shao Yinyin [Susan Shaw] (Zhu, fortune teller), Gu Meihua [Josephine Koo] (Gu, wealthy customer), Chen Jing (ghost), Lu Haipeng (Liang Zhenying/ZY), Chen Liyun (villain-hitting old woman), Brian Siswojo (An, Zhu’s son), Liang Yongjie (Gao Qingshui), Chen Weixiong (Chen), He Huachao, Chen Rongzhao (policemen), Hou Huanling (rubbish woman), Zhou Shuhui (massage girl), Zhong Jielan (An’s wife), Chen Zhongtai, He Shaoying (majiang players).

Premiere: New York Asian Film Festival (Opening Night), 28 Jun 2013.

Release: Hong Kong, 11 Jul 2013.

(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 14 Oct 2013.)