Review: TALES FROM THE DARK 1 Is A Scare-Free Triptych Of Hong Kong Ghost Stories

James Marsh, Asian Editor
In the first of a two-part film project, three short stories from acclaimed Hong Kong horror writer Lilian Lee are adapted for the big screen in this star-studded horror anthology. Results vary from the good to the tedious, however, with the various socio-political messages lost in tired genre trappings.

Lilian Lee is one of Hong Kong's most successful authors, who has published hundreds of novels, many of which have been adapted for the big screen. Stanley Kwan's Rouge, Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Tsui Hark's Green Snake were all originally penned by Lee, and so the prospect of six diverse filmmakers adapting half a dozen of her short stories into an ambitious anthology project was understandably an enticing concept.

Tales From The Dark 1, released in Hong Kong this weekend, presents the first three of these adaptations (with Part 2 scheduled to arrive early next month), and boasts contributions from Fruit Chan, Lee Chi Ngai and the directorial debut of actor Simon Yam. The seasoned star of more than 150 films also takes the lead in Stolen Goods, which opens the anthology.

Yam plays Kwan, a curmudgeonly loner scraping together a meagre living in a "coffin apartment" no bigger than a jail cell. When he loses his job on a construction site, the obstinate Kwan refuses to go on welfare, despite owing back rent and having no relatives to turn to for help. In desperation Kwan heads to a cemetery and steals a selection of urns, intending to blackmail their relatives into paying a ransom for their return. However, Kwan soon discovers that tampering with human remains will wreak repercussions from the spirit world.

Stolen Goods is a decent premise and Yam's performance is solid, even if Kwan is a somewhat objectionable character. Behind the camera, However, Yam seems to have taken lessons in horror direction from the Pang Brothers, with a parade of ear-splitting aural ticks and confounding crash zooms standing in for genuine atmospherics or scares. The film seems reluctant to indulge the naturally eeries settings of his creaky apartment complex, the cemetery itself, or explore intriguing peripheral characters such as a ghostly couple played by Yuen Qiu and a persistently gluttonous Lam Suet, instead lingering in his box-like room where, literally, there is no space for anything interesting to happen.

The film shifts up a gear in its second short, A Word in the Palm, from Lee Chi Ngai (Tom, Dick and Hairy, Dance Subaru). Tony Leung Ka Fai plays Ho, a struggling fortune teller, who is about to go out of business despite his proven ability to see ghosts. When a young pregnant wife visits him, who suspects she is being haunted by unseen spectres, Ho sends the couple to crystal gazer, Lan (a ridiculously bespectacled Kelly Chen). But when Ho realizes the schoolgirl who also visits him that day may in fact be a ghost, Ho and Lan team up to investigate.

A Word in the Palm plays things much lighter, and Leung and Chen earn a number of laughs from their eccentric, yet affectionate turns as slightly antiquated mystics. There's a rare onscreen appearance from Eileen Tung as Ho's estranged wife, and a solid turn from upcoming starlet Cherry Ngan (The Way We Dance), who more than holds her own in a couple of great scenes opposite Leung Ka Fai. The plot itself is a little obvious, and the audience is always a couple of steps ahead of the characters, but Lee's effort is nevertheless the best of the bunch.

I had high hopes for Fruit Chan's contribution, Jing Zhe, who had previously adapted Lilian Lee's writing to great effect in Three Extremes: Dumplings back in 2004. His short opens strongly, taking a documentarian approach to the traditional practice of "Villain Hitting" - a form of exorcism, where (normally) old ladies lay curses upon "villains" for a small fee, by beating a photo of them or a piece of paper bearing their name with their shoe.

Jing Zhe, named after the time of year most commonly associated with the practice, sees the increasingly ubiquitous Susan Shaw play Chu, a veteran villain hitter, who is approached by a beautiful yet mysterious young woman (Vulgaria co-star Dada Chen) to curse four individuals, whose names she doesn't know. As Chu chants away, however, we discover through flashbacks that these two individuals may have met before, and Chu may in fact have witnessed a horrific crime that befell this poor young woman.

Sadly, as the story unfolds, so too does Chan's initially impressive aesthetic. What starts off with a raw, almost unsettling verite feel lapses increasingly into hokey horror movie tropes as the curses find their intended targets. What began so promisingly quickly begins to resemble a low budget Final Destination sequel, batting way above its budgetary constraints and disbanding realism in favour of incongruously staged kills.

It's a disappointing climax to an already bumpy cinematic ride that yields all too few interesting moments over its drawn-out 113 minutes. It could be argued that we are only at the half-way point, and Tales From the Dark 2 boasts offerings from Gordon Chan (Fist of Legend, Painted Skin), Lawrence Lau (Lee Rock, Besieged City) and popular actor-composer Teddy Robin (seen most memorably in recent years as the foul-mouthed si-fu in Gallants). We can but hope that the film's producers are saving the best for last, however, as this first trio of horror stories is only intermittently entertaining and there's not a genuine scare to be had.
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