Tales From The Dark 1
Hong Kong (2013) Dirs. Simon Yam, Fruit Chan, Chi-Ngai Lee
This compendium of horror tales from Hong Kong brings us three unrelated stories of supernatural spookiness Asian style from the pen of Lillian Lee, adapted by three very different directors, including the debut behind the camera of celebrated actor Simon Yam.
Yam’s contribution Stolen Goods is up first. Yam himself plays Kwan Fu-keung, a poor, dishevelled man living in a tiny hovel trying to find work anywhere he can but ends up getting fired from every job. Living alone Kwan only has two rag dolls with which to converse, which clearly doesn’t help his mental state. Desperate for money, Kwan decides to steal the ashes from a crematorium of the recently deceased and blackmailing their families for their return. But instead of the living, Kwan gets a visit from the dead.
The second segment entitled A Word In The Palm is directed by Chi-Ngai Lee, making his first Chinese language film since 204’s Magic Kitchen. The plot concerns a palm reader Ho (Tony Leung Ka-fai) hoping to retire when swimming instructor Cheung Ka-chun (Eddie Li) and his wife (Jeannie Chau) come to him about a ghost bothering them. Later that day a schoolgirl Chan Siu-ting (Cherry Ngan) pays him a visit. Convinced she is the ghost of a girl who recently committed suicide Ho enlists the help of quirky new age spiritualist Lan (Kelly Chen) to solve the case.
Finally Fruit Chan, who is no stranger to horror as anyone who saw 2004’s Dumplings will know, brings us Jing Zhe, the title referring to the Chinese tradition of the Waking of Insects held at the start of the third solar term. A street fortune-teller, Chu (Susan Shaw), offers the service of an old practice called Villain Beating in which a curse is placed on someone by hitting a picture representing them. One of her customers is the wealthy Mrs. Koo (Josephine Koo) who wants a woman who “stole her son from her beaten. Chu’s last customer of the night is the ghost of a young girl (Dada Chen) who wants three men and a woman beaten up. Could the two curses be related?
Horror is a difficult genre to be original in and when there is a breakthrough it is capitalised on almost immediately eventually becoming diluted in record time by the various pretenders and Johnny Come Latelys. To that end while Lillian Lee’s stories that contain elements that will assuredly be familiar to experienced fans of the Asian Horror movement, she at least tries to put a fresh spin on it in her stories while the three directors do the same with their adaptations.
As the only novice of the trio, Simon Yam has the hardest job but equips himself extremely well, presumably having paid close attention while on set across his many years as one of Hong Kong’s most underrated and reliable actors. Ironically, his outing is the most ambitious and visually artistic of the three. This might be a sign of Yam’s hidden talents or simply a case of someone being let lose with the toys of the trade, wanting to tinker with a bit of everything.
His story, Stolen Goods, is the least accessible compared to the other two so his esoteric presentation is somewhat apropos with regard to realising this on screen. From obscure camera angles to unusual lighting, non-linear asides featuring long time co-star Lam Suet as a fat ghost constantly eating while two young ghost girls are running about looking for shelter. It plays out as a claustrophobic nightmare from which neither the viewer nor Kwan can awaken but is a little too abstract for its own good. Overall Yam shows he has a good eye for both direction and scene construction but in this instance he should have cast another lead other than himself.
Chi-Ngai Lee‘s turn is the most light hearted on offer, with only a few scares and a rare but perfectly pitched comedic performance by Kelly Chen proving a pleasant surprise. As if her oversized glasses weren’t enough of a hint that her character Lan was a bit kooky, her hippy attire and new age store complete the obvious stereotype. But Lan is the energetic centre of the story while reliable veteran Tony Leung Ka-fai as the sensible yet equally amusingly bespectacled palm reader Ho, provides the calm balance. A nod is due to young Cherry Ngan who puts in an impressive turn as the young ghost girl, displaying an acute awareness beyond her junior years.
If a few minutes had been trimmed from the first two stories, Fruit Chan’s would have been a greater success since it needed just a little more fleshing out to help bring together some of the loose threads more clearly. It does however provide the most gore and grisly demises of the film in some slightly contrived but neatly executed spectacular set pieces, one of which won’t help noodle sales any time soon! Veteran Susan Shaw is great as the crusty old fortune teller while trouble starlet Dada Chen (the sexy cover girl in Vulgaria) is silently effective as the aggrieved spectre.
If the triptych formula has a benefit it is that if you don’t like one segment then there are at least two chances for the film to redeem itself. Fortunately all three segments in Tales From the Dark 1 are pretty strong albeit for different reasons. By no means perfect or necessarily original this offers a satisfying enough triple dose of Asian horror Hong Kong style.