“Tales from the Dark 1” (2013): HK Horror

TALES FROM THE DARK 1 movie poster

“Tales from the Dark 1” (李碧華鬼魅系列 迷離夜) is the first of two 2013 compilations of short horror films from Hong Kong directors. Horror stories by Hong Kong author and screenwriter Lilian Lee (Li Pi-Hua) — whose many writings include the novel Farewell My Concubine, as well as the screenplay for the film — are the basis for the screenplays of the six shorts in this double portmanteau.

“Tales from the Dark 1”: Background

A bit of cultural background is in order here. First and foremost, Chinese horror films are not based on the Judaeo-Christian cultural background that Westerners (whether or not they are religious) use to interpret Western horror films. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto! When watching Chinese horrors, think Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

The gwai (ghost) story is a case in point. From the Buddhist point-of-view, people can become ghosts after they die, but before they reincarnate. Like in the Western tradition, they usually have some sort of unfinished business that holds them back. The “hungry ghost” is a particular type of gwei. These spirits were gluttons for some sort of physical pleasure during their lifetimes. Classically, they have very narrow necks that do not allow them to swallow the food that they feel compelled to binge upon while they are ghosts.

Many (but not all) Hong Kong horror films feature ghosts — as do all three shorts in the film reviewed in this post. N.B., horrors from mainland China will not have ghosts because China’s film board does not permit this type of film — along with politically- and sexually-themed movies — to be made in China. The government considers gwai movies to based on superstition (i.e., religion) and therefore lacking in merit. However, Chinese filmmakers from the mainland do produce horrors based on folklore (e.g., “Painted Skin: The Resurrection,” 2012, dir. Wuershan) that are often high-quality films.

“Tales from the Dark 1”: segment 1, “Stolen Goods”

Well-known (i.e., former supermodel and longtime movie mega-star) HK actor Simon Yam both stars in and directs “Stolen Goods,” the first segment of the film. The screenplay is by Lilian Lee. Yam plays a poor, middle-aged, somewhat mentally-off, single man who loses his construction job. Living alone in a “coffin flat,” he already has a connection with the spirit world through a pair of dolls that he has been “sent from heaven to protect.” After finding and then losing a job in the kitchen of a restaurant, he hits upon the idea of stealing funeral urns from a local columbarium and blackmailing the families of the deceased into paying him to give them back. Unfortunately for him, he does not consider how this plan will upset the spirit world.

While this short is probably the weakest of the trio, it is commendable for its depiction of the growing gap between poor and rich in Hong Kong. The gwai trope is well done (particularly veteran HK actor Lam Suet‘s hungry ghost role) in the classic HK mode, but is somewhat disconnected from Yam’s character’s story at times. Yam’s acting is a bit too hammy at the beginning, although he settles into the role as the story continues. As a director, Yam relies too much on jump cuts, fast pans, and cues from the score and from sound effects to accentuate the supernatural aspects of the story.

“Tales from the Dark 1”: segment 2, “A Word in the Palm”

Director Chi-Ngai Lee mixes horror and comedy in the right proportions in this story about a traditional Chinese fortune teller, Ho Ho (Tony Leung Kar-Fai), and a New Age astrologer, Lan (Kelly Chen), who team up to solve two seemingly unrelated ghost cases. Although the interactions between Ho and Lan are often comic, the connection between the two cases is serious. There is also a comedic subplot involving Ho’s imminent retirement and his relationships with his estranged wife (Eileen Tung) and his musical prodigy son.

“Tales from the Dark 1”: segment 3, “Jing Zhe”

Jing Zhe is the first day of Spring (literally, the “awakening of hibernating insects”). Occurring in early March of the solar calendar (January in the lunar calendar), it is also the time for “villain beating” (打小人 or da siu yan), a folk tradition in Hong Kong and Guangdong province in China. In Hong Kong, it takes place under the Canal Road flyover (overpass) in Causeway Bay. For a fee, one can pay one of the female practitioners of this folk art to place a curse on any “villain” in one’s life. The shaman writes the name of the person to be cursed on a paper cutout of a man or woman (depending on the gender of the “villain”). She then beats it with the heel of a shoe while chanting imprecations about the person in lines that always rhyme. Finally, she burns the effigy. The goal is not so much to pace a curse on the “villain” as to free the client from bad luck related to this person.

This is a real Hong Kong event that is put to good cinematic use by writer-director Fruit Chan, following a story by Lilian Lee. Chu (Susan Shaw) is a villain hitter who deals with a few human clients (including a rich woman and a man whose name is the same as a prominent Hong Kong political figure) until she meets her match when a female ghost (Dada Chan) requests her services to wreak vengeance upon the three men and one woman who caused her death. Chan throws in political satire with a thinly-veiled reference to Leung Chun-ying, the controversial Chief Executive of the Hong Kong government.

After watching this film on Amazon Instant Video, I gave it 3 1/2 out of 5 stars on Rotten Tomatoes. Keep on the lookout for my take (coming later this month) on the more hard-core “Tales from the Dark 2.”