Last Ghost Standing

Despite rumours to the contrary, post-’97 Hong Kong cinema is not dead. Instead, it’s morphed into a whole new animal showing greater stability and strength than its pre-1995 incarnation. 1995 saw the industry hit bottom as the early ’90s film bubble burst. Too many bad movies and bad production practices resulted in a woozy hangover compounded by the 1998 Asian Economic Crisis that caused most of Southeast Asia’s film markets to evaporate overnight. Deprived of one of its major sources of revenue, the Hong Kong industry hit the skids hard, with critics and fans prematurely proclaiming its death. At the last minute a short-term infusion of dot com money got it back on its feet, and now it’s stronger than ever. Production levels are lower, and thus more sustainable and realistic. Talent is getting courted by Hollywood on a regular basis, and content-hungry entertainment conglomerates are paying bottom dollar for film libraries (which is better than the no dollars they were getting before). Hong Kong’s industry is rigorously local these days, with its biggest grossing hits being made-in-Hong Kong products that emphasise the city and its quirks, rather than treating it like an anonymous backlot providing regulation-free shooting space for international productions.

Through all of these post-’95 ups and downs, two movie trends have sustained themselves: the triad film and the horror movie. The Chinese horror movie tradition reaches back to the ’30s, but the films were mostly of the romantic, gothic variety. In the ’70s, England’s Hammer studios introduced Shaw Brothers to the idea of the gross-out horror flick with the Shaw/Hammer co-production Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (Roy Ward Baker, 1971). Shaw took this grody trend and ran with it in the ’70s and early ’80s. In 1987, Tsui Hark (who’d tried and failed to make a sickie with his cannibal kielbasa We’re Going to Eat You [1980]) pumped extra juice into the romantic ghost film with A Chinese Ghost Story, and the two trends co-existed for a while in the early ’90s. But in 1992 the sick flicks became true crime gut-crunchers and rapidly hit the point of no return, burning out by 1996. Romantic ghost stories modernised, however. Hong Kong isn’t one for innovation, but in terms of adaptation it’s tops. By 2002 the romantic ghost movie, mutated by exposure to The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyalaman, 1999) and The Ring (Hideo Nakata, 2000) in particular, had become an exalted genre dominating almost all the big-ticket productions that year.

Tracking Hong Kong horror production year-by-year is nutritious in the sense that it forces one to leave out high-minded theory and focus on what each director and producer was doing. As a caveat, it’s nearly impossible to see every horror movie each year, and it’s almost as hard to get an accurate count of how many were made. The following are one writer’s impressions and they are most likely wrong.

1996

A lot of things died in Hong Kong in 1996, including the box office. With takings down 30 percent from 1995 one of Hong Kong’s distribution chains closed, leaving the city with only three film distributors. However, evil genius Wong Jing, director/cinematographer Andrew Lau, and producer/talent scout Manfred Wong chose that year to form their BoB (Best of Best) production company and dash out the ultra-cheap triad boyz movie, Young and Dangerous. By year’s end the movie would have three sequels with a collective take of $60 million (about 10 times what most successful B-movies were making). The cast became famous, and the Young and Dangerous movies became a mammoth franchise.

That year also saw the first Milkyway Image picture, Beyond Hypothermia (Patrick Leung). Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s production company would be a creative dark star during Hong Kong’s film crisis of the late ’90s, taking the trends of the day and mixing them with a No Exit mindset, resulting in film noir’s post-’70s highwater mark. Starting with this film, To and Wai applied horror movie tactics to action films turning them into claustrophobic mantraps. In Beyond Hypothermia, A sense of dread hangs over the proceedings and many of the paranoid night sequences take on the stalk-and-slash tension of a slasher flick.

Untold Story

Herman Yau brought one era of his career to an end. A loosey-goosey director of bottom-billed genre flicks, Yau shot the ultra-gross-out movie Untold Story (1993), early in his career. A queasy mix of comedy, social criticism, and gore, the movie starred Anthony Wong as a real-life serial killer who murdered a restaurant owner and his family, diced them up into pork buns and served them to his customers. It was a genre high, and Wong won a Best Actor award for his relentless performance. Yau and Wong reunited in 1996 for the even more outrageous Ebola Syndrome. A blood-smeared grin with gristle stuck between its teeth, Ebola is pure chaos. Wong again plays a short-tempered everyman who flees Hong Kong after committing a crime and hides out overseas where he can give rein to his every sick appetite. Whereas in Untold Story the original crime was beating and burning alive a man to whom he owes a gambling debt, the stakes rise exponentially in Ebola when Wong flees Hong Kong for South Africa after castrating his boss, ripping out his mistress’ tongue, and trying to set a little girl on fire. A lurid combination of Outbreak (Wolfgang Peterson, 1995) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1990) viewers rub their eyes in disbelief as Wong rapes a dying African tribeswoman who vomits on him mid-coitus, passing on the titular flesh-eating virus. Wong’s a carrier, not a victim, however and after sexual intercourse with a variety of meat products, a couple of murders, and some gratuitous sex, he winds up back in Hong Kong, death flowing in his wake like a big trail of stink. If a movie this repugnant doesn’t cause the earth to open up and swallow mankind whole, nothing will. It’s the last gasp of Hong Kong’s Cat III true crime pictures: a movie that’s not completely true, but is completely criminal.

Wellson Chin also wrapped up his “date” movie series in ’96. Starting with Thou Shall Not Swear (1993) and The Third Full Moon (1994) these light horror movies featured investigations of spooky crimes. 1996 saw the release of The Day that Doesn’t Exist which, while being the best of the series, made the point that Hong Kong horror was running out of ideas. Grossing only half what its predecessors had, it still did better than its follow-up, July 13th, which was the final nail in the coffin for the series. Chin would go into hibernation until 2002, except for one last sputter in 1997.

One of Hong Kong’s best horror directors, Ivan Lai, was also ending his horror career in 1996 with a back-to-his-roots project. Director of 1993’s Daughter of Darkness 1 and 2, Lai is a cheapie director who seems to occasionally catch fire. An assistant director on Ronny Yu’s Ur-horror film The Imp back in 1981, Lai directed an in-name-only remake of The Imp in 1996. Diana Pang and Mark Cheng head up to Shao Guan China to film an aboriginal ritual for TV. Their crew bunks in a decaying hotel with infinitely unfurling tenebrous corridors and an oversexed owner who comes complete with a mute, hunch-backed assistant. Ivan Lai makes the material more than his, as his signature squirm-inducing voyeuristic setpieces degenerate into medical appliance bondage scenarios right out of a Japanese fetish mag. This would be it for horror from Lai, who went on to direct nothing very good.

Hong Kong movies continued to drop off through 1996, and audiences seemed to settle in to watch them spiral right down the drain. Directors brought segments of their careers to an end, and although Young and Dangerous and Milkyway Image proved something new could still spring up at the box office, people expected things to get worse. And in 1997, they did.

1997

As if it wasn’t bad enough that box office takings were down 25 percent from 1996’s record lows, in late October the Asian Economic Crisis swept Southeast Asia. Hong Kong businesses weren’t hit so badly, their currency being pegged to the US dollar, but foreign businesses with offices in Hong Kong laid off their workers, overseas investments crashed, and overseas markets for Hong Kong films disappeared in the blink of an eye. In the midst of all this strife, the handover took place, transforming Hong Kong from a British colony into a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. The July 1 ceremonies were notable for their monotony and the whole thing seemed to pass like a boring dream which caused, at worst, a great deal of inconvenience.

More acute was the damage caused by Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) which opened big in Hong Kong, pulling in $80 million at the box office in a year when $20 million was considered the sign of a runaway blockbuster. For a foreign film to do so well while the local industry withered on the vine was a deep shock to industry morale and one had the feeling that many producers were trying to dump their cheapest products on the market so that they could make a few bucks before they went out of business.

Tsui Hark remade his Chinese Ghost Story movies as A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation. Cobbling together a Hong Kong feature film animation industry from the ground up, the movie is slicker than it should be and has accomplished character design. Eminently watchable, it’s also eminently forgettable and misses the hand-cranked romantic charm of the original series. Without real actors, the whole endeavour feels pointless.

The big event of the year was the debut of the Troublesome Night series which initially looked as cheap as anything else on the market. Horror anthologies are a Hong Kong tradition, dating back at least to Tung Shan-si’s 1974 Blood Reincarnation, and 1997 saw plenty of them. But the TN series were in a class of their own. Produced by Ringo Lam’s writer, Nam Yin, and directed by Herman Yau, the Troublesome Night series uses the anthology film format to spotlight a different industry in each installment and they all feature the same main cast. Although the series reached nineteen films by 2002, it’s 1-6 that are the high points.

Troublesome Night 1 is directed by Herman Yau, Steven Cheng, and Tam Long-cheung. Herman Yau would return as sole director for episodes 2-6. Steve Cheng would go on to direct six other horror films in the next five years (1) all of which were, at the very least, interesting. Tam would go on to do absolutely nothing that any English-speaker can detect. Troublesome Night 1 includes three stories loosely linked by their connection to the movie industry, and looks like something cobbled together by some production assistants with a few spare lights; the lead characters spend 90 minutes running around waving their arms and screaming. Though all the pieces are there, TN 1 is best viewed after watching later, better installments.

Troublesome Night 2 features the same cast but this time they’re motorcycle-riding radio DJs who host a call-in show. Balancing morbid action with treacly pop songs this one knows it’s playing for something better than a couple of late night screenings and a quick life on pirate VCD. Yau is directing alone this time, and he still doesn’t have the mix right between emotion, humour and horror, but there’s the feeling that the actors and crew are working for the pure pleasure of it. TN 2 also establishes the series’ turf: blue collar life. Throughout the series the actors play working stiffs who have to contend with bad debts, mortgages, and financial scams when they aren’t contending with the forces of darkness. TN 2 is no classic, but the sudden bike crash scenes are fun, and some of the dialogue can be goonily dark. When the girlfriend of a dead cyclist shows up at the radio station, the DJs try to cheer her up. “Let’s dedicate a great song to him”, they suggest.

Cheap laughs were hard to come by, and the crashing economy seemed to be turning all Hong Kong films into horror movies. Ringo Lam reached maximum maturity with Full Alert, about a cop and a crook hunting each other down like animals. The climactic confrontation takes place on a lightning-lit pier beneath a stormy midnight sky and seems to herald nothing less than the death of humanity.

This was, of course, a metaphorical death of humanity. It would take another year before director Wilson Yip actually wiped out mankind. In 1997, his horror hat in the ring was Midnight Zone, a well-shot anthology film that has a lot to offer those with extremely low expectations. Its best segment is its final one that sees horror icons Helena Law Lan (2) and Anthony Wong meet onscreen like a Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee double-header. Anthony Wong is a harried family man who spends most of his time out of the house playing mah-jong. Too cheap to bury his mother (played by Law Lan) he has her cremated instead and then slowly starts to lose it as her ghost haunts his dysfunctional family. In the final scene the two face off at midnight and it turns out that Law Lan just wants to see her family sit down and have dinner together – once she knows they’re okay she can go on to be reincarnated. Critics have made much of the fact that this could be seen as a wish for a peaceful handover (traditionalist China just wants to see its prodigal son happy) but that’s a heavy metaphor to ask such a short, sweet sequence to bear.

Intruder

Reunification phobia was on full display in Milkyway Image’s first and only full-blown horror film, Intruder (Tsang Gun-Cheung). A hooker from Mainland China comes to Hong Kong and stages a home invasion of a cab driver’s life, reducing him to a quivering pile of pain. Hong Kong has always been deeply suspicious of other Asian countries. Thailand is inevitably a place you return from with a blood curse. Japan is a quasi-fascist military state. And Mainland China is home to ruthless, criminal hillbillies, occupying the same psychic space as the American South does in Hollywood horror movies: the place where the stupid inbreds want to kill you. As an allegory for Reunification jitters, Intruder is a little too pat, with its vicious Mainlander re-educating the soft, capitalist Hong Konger with a claw hammer. It was rejected at the box office and remains Milkyway’s lowest-grossing movie to date. The Handover was old hat by 1997, and people wanted movies about the future, not an eternal noodling over the past. Critics have always projected reunification themes onto Hong Kong films, thus robbing directors of any agency. But the Handover is overly simplistic as a theme, a little bit like a young adult novel: it gives the appearance of thoughtfulness and depth, without actually requiring any thoughtfulness or depth.

Milkyway milked horror tropes more successfully in 1997 with The Longest Nite (Patrick Yau Tat-Chi), a mutant hybrid of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and Lady from Shanghai (1948). A sweltering noir journey through one pitch black night, it features severed heads, disappearing witnesses, gratuitous fingernail torture, hallucinatory stalking sequences, and enough paranoia to fuel a small totalitarian nation. It’s as close to a horror movie as a cop flick can get.

The year’s scariest trend was the proliferation of big, empty, internationalist pictures that looked ready-made for toothless Hollywood remakes. Movies like Option Zero (Dante Lam) Downtown Torpedoes (Teddy Chan), Island of Greed (Michael Mak) and Gordon Chan’s wannabe apocalyptic Devil movie Armageddon held up a mirror to Hollywood and reflecting its ugly, empty face back at it. Fans reacted violently, proclaimed the death of the Hong Kong movie, and stayed home.

1998

This is the bottom, but it’s also the year things began to turn around. Piracy was rampant, and most movies appeared on pirate VCD the day they were released, if not before. Shelved product was getting dumped onto the market like toxic waste, and the big budget productions played it so safe that they wound up being less than garbage. Things couldn’t get any worse, and a turnaround had to happen. It was called The Storm Riders (Andrew Lau). A big budget, CGI-stuffed Chinese epic based on a Chinese-language comic book, The Storm Riders beat Titanic at the box office and gave Hong Kong audiences something to cheer about. It was fluff, but it was Chinese fluff, and nothing says “You’re OK” like box office success. Produced by Wong Jing’s BoB company, this was also further proof that Wong had sold his soul to the devil for financial success as everyone around him was failing.

At the other end of the spectrum, where the budgets are thin and so are the audiences, Hong Kong turned out its best horror movies in years. Milkyway continued to choke on its own panic with Expect the Unexpected (Patrick Yau Tat-Chi) which had an abrupt ending that looked like it had been guest-directed by Lucio Fulci, and their A Hero Never Dies (Johnnie To) felt like the Dario Argento/John Woo collaboration that never was. Away from Milkyway was the Derek Yee-produced Till Death Do Us Part, starring Anita Yuen, Hong Kong’s comedy sweetheart. A staple of mid-’90s cinema she appeared in forty-four films (mostly comedies) in five years. 1998 saw her output reduced to a mere four movies before she vanished from movie screens pretty much permanently. Directed by Daniel Lee (What Price Survival [1994], Black Mask [1996]), Till Death Us Do Part sees Anita Yuen discover her inner psychopath in an inside-out revamp of the Intruder scenario. Yuen plays a childrens book illustrator whose husband leaves her for another woman. Radically unfit to raise her daughter, or even cross the street, Yuen comes unhinged and retreats into a fantasy world. Lee traps the audience in Yuen’s head and the effect is like Psycho told from Norman Bates’ point-of-view. This time, the evil woman coming to kill Hong Kongers isn’t a Mainland hooker, but Hong Kong’s best-loved comedienne.

Troublesome Night 3

Anthology films continued to come out, one being Faces of Horrid (Yiu Tin-Hung, Lam Chin Wai, & Si To) which was so bad that it can’t be spoken of. Far superior were Herman Yau’s Troublesome Night 3 and 4 which are the series’ best installments. Part three takes place in a funeral home and the cast plays morticians, which may be a first for ultra-superstitious Hong Kong. After Herman Yau’s father died he decided to make a movie about death based on what he’d learned from having to handle the funeral arrangements and the result is a horror movie that moves from the disturbing to the goofy to the genuinely touching. In the first story, a mortician tries to reconstruct the face of his idol, a pop singer, after she kills herself. The second is standard-issue TN silliness with the characters running around screaming and waving their arms, but they’re really good at it by this point so it’s sort of charming. In the last segment the series gracefully exits the confines of genre when one of the morticians gets dumped by her boyfriend because he thinks her job is unlucky. Not so much horror movies as urban legends about modern living, the TN series uses genre tools to illuminate social interaction. Spending so much time at work, most of us forge our strongest bonds with our co-workers, and no movie pays more beautiful tribute to that than TN 3.

Part 4 is the most narratively developed of the bunch. Funded with foreign money, the Troublesome Night crew go to the Philippines (an eternal Hong Kong vacation destination) and running around screaming while waving your arms gets elevated to an art. Mobs of zombies, a merciless line-for-line parody of John Woo’s Bullet in the Head (1990) and some of the ugliest naked ghosts ever put on film all play roles. By their fourth movie together the TN cast have become a comforting and professional presence. With the series’ solid craftsmanship and tight running times the movies almost seem like testaments to professionalism and self-respect amidst all the shoddy, rushed-out productions flooding the post-’97 market.

Two 1998 movies took the low road to the apocalypse: Bio-Zombie (Wilson Yip) and The Demon’s Baby. Bio-Zombie teamed up Jordan Chan and Sam Lee as a 21st Century Cheech and Chong and remains director Wilson Yip’s most fully-realised movie. Our stoner heroes are bottom-rung triad boyz who get trapped in one of Hong Kong’s intestinal, Moebius-strip indoor shopping malls with an ever-growing pack of the living dead, in a riff on George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979). The zombies have drunk contaminated Lucozade (of course it’s a weapon of mass destruction engineered by evil arms dealers) and they turn into howling weed whackers cratered with wax acne. A simultaneous send-up of Young and Dangerous conventions (pretty much an institution at this point) and an homage to zombie movies, this well-made flick puts the pedal to the metal all the way to the end of the world. Nothing embodies that Hong Kong fatalism more than the expression on Jordan Chan’s face in the film’s second-to-the-last shot as he embraces his fate with one final, bemused grin.

Wong Jing spent most of the late ’90s making Andy Lau vehicles, producing the Young and Dangerous series, and extending his Raped by an Angel roughie series. But in ’98 he also produced The Demon’s Baby (Kant Leung) which looks like a Wong Jing knockabout comedy/horror film replete with latex hand puppets, flying fetuses, and garden hose tentacles unraveling from wombs and piercing bodies. A parody of Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991), the movie takes place in a general’s household in Republican era China. His three concubines are thrown off balance when a new bride arrives, and disrupts the household dynamic. The forces of nature are subsequently disrupted when five demon babies in antique jars are released. Wong cranks Zhang’s patriarchal critiques past the point of reason, and Zhang’s disturbing sadism towards women is put on parodic parade by Wong Jing’s concubines who become all-consuming, carnivorous wombs on legs. But the movie leaves patented Wong Jing territory in its final reel as the entire cast is reduced to wet, red smears and the hero is forced to reject Buddhist mercy and kill his possessed wife and unborn child before stumbling away, shell-shocked, into the hazy night. There’s no deep message here, though. In a Wong Jing movie, anything goes, and if apocalyptic angst looks like it’ll sell tickets, he’s happy to serve it up in family-sized portions.

1999

The year started out with the domestic box office reaching the absolute floor. No Hollywood films hit the $30 million mark and the biggest box office grosser was Stephen Chiau’s Chinese New Year release, King of Comedy. which reached $30 million, panting and gasping for breath. It was also the year that Milkyway Image got out of the darkness game and made the light, crowd-pleasing caper film, Running out of Time (Johnnie To). The movie was rewarded with box office success, and Milkyway became a producer of glossy comedies and romances.

Despite the grim news at the box office, towards the end of the year the infrastructure of the industry seemed to be bouncing back. The Customs Department began cracking down on pirate VCDs to great effect. Dot com money flooded the industry like a blood transfusion, and content providers were relentlessly courted. Charles Heung, one of Hong Kong’s most successful producers, established 100 Years of Film, a company dedicated to developing a huge library of content for his company China Star, and the first thing he did was sign up a slew of big name directors for well-funded projects. Other Southeast Asian markets began rebounding, resulting in more international co-productions.

But the hands-down box office champ was a Japanese movie. Hong Kong has seen three foreign films change the face of Chinese movie-going: Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1994), Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), and Japan’s The Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1999). The most immediate result of The Ring‘s box office success was a shot of steroids into the ghost film genre that had been lying low for the past few years. The second most immediate result was that Sadako, The Ring‘s long-haired, white-gowned ghost, would appear on the cover of just about every Hong Kong VCD for the next three years.

Troublesome Night 5 saw the old familiars return as cab drivers. The plot jumps around in time, looping back on itself before accelerating into the future, but part two and three of the story tie together and all its green lighting, running around screaming, and arm-waving winds up packing an emotional punch. The biggest problem with the TN series is the fact that it is a series. Since TN 3, these had been radically unconventional horror movies, but most people are accustomed to sequelitis and a movie series that reaches part 5 seems like a guarantee of garbage. Eventually the TN series would, indeed, decay into garbage, but it still had one good film left to go.

Hopping on board The Ring trend, TN 6 eschewed the anthology format and instead tells a single story focussing on the paparazzi, a hot topic in Hong Kong that year. With a barely-glimpsed, long-haired female ghost and no comic relief, this movie is the series downer. It’s also the first of the TN series not written by Lau Hau-wai, and it would be the last instalment directed by Herman Yau. For Part 7, producer Nam Yin took over the directorial duties with disastrous results.

TN 1 segment director Mark Cheng returned with two movies, Horoscope 1: The Voice From Hell and Erotic Nightmare. Nightmare features a Psycho-inspired plot twist that may have been prompted by economic issues (the first and second halves almost seem to be different movies). Anthony Wong is a PE teacher who gets approached by an urban sorcerer who offers him unlimited erotic dreams. Wong eagerly accepts and soon finds a real-world price being paid for his nocturnal expeditions. The second half of the movie finds Wong’s brother stepping up to the plate to dish out a little revenge with occult powers of his own. Bookended by two cash-obsessed entrepreneurial magicians, and with Anthony Wong’s amiable horndog addicted to instant sexual gratification stuck in the middle Erotic Nightmare seems to be using magic to stand in for internet capitalism. As its wizards and victims try to carve off bleeding hunks of the good life for themselves the whole movie starts feeling more and more like a savvy anti-capitalist statement. For Hong Kongers burned out by the Asian Economic Crisis, its depiction of destructive greed may have sounded a sympathetic note.

Ringo Lam spelunked into similar subterranean territory with Victim. Prompted by the success of The Ring, young urban hitmaker Joe Ma produced Ringo’s second venture into supernatural horror (the first being his debut film Esprit D’Amour [1983]). Lau Ching-wan plays a guy who lost it all on the plunging stock market and Amy Kwok, (his real-life wife) can’t understand how the man she married has turned into a moody, depressed lump festering on the sofa. Suddenly, Lau gets abducted and after being rescued he claims to be possessed by an evil spirit. Because it’s expected of him, Ringo Lam includes police procedural footwork with Tony Leung Kar-fai playing an emotionally crippled cop trying to prove that Lau Ching-wan isn’t possessed at all but is a savvy criminal establishing an alibi. The plot gets in the way of itself far more than it actually pays off but what resonates here is Lam’s haunted house Hong Kong. Stripped of all objects of value, with its shutters banging in the wind, the HKSAR groans eerily in the night wind as its citizens, little more than zombies burnt out by economic collapse, shuffle through its darkened streets. Joe Ma and Ringo Lam fought over the ending of the movie and it wound up being released with two. In Ma’s, Lau is a victim of the supernatural. In Lam’s, Lau Ching-wan isn’t possessed by anything more soul-killing than failure and regret.

Last Ghost Standing

On a more celebratory note, Simon Loui strides from the sidelines into the spotlight with Last Ghost Standing, a putrid little pop flick to herald in the new millennium. Based on a novel by Simon Loui, who also stars, it takes place on New Year’s Eve 1999. A movie theater is about to be closed down and the ghosts that live there are ticked off about it. No one’s there for the final show except for the projectionist, the manager, the concessions girl, Francis Ng slumming as a fey Satan, a poop monster and three stoned teenagers. Shot for $1.95 this lo-ball production is charming in its cheesiness (although one’s mind boggles to imagine the novel it’s based on). In an end-of-millennium fit of frenzy the movie flashes through every possible trope of Hong Kong horror from ghost romances to flying witch heads to bad latex monsters, gruesome gutcrunching hand puppets, the Young and Dangerous series, and the girls with guns genre. Usually appropriated from other cultures, Hong Kong horror conventions are often menacing in their vagueness and Last Ghost Standing manages to be more so with its sprays of acid pus, its shambling elephantine fecal matter, and its cut n’splice geographical tricks that look like Escher drawings brought to life on the cheap. Hong Kong’s one indigenous ghoul, the hopping vampire, doesn’t make an appearance here, but its absence is rectified by an evil Jackie Chan impersonation and direct lifts from Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1994) and The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1983). If thirty years of Hong Kong moviemaking was the binge, Last Ghost Standing is the end of the millennium purge.

2000

Not a promising year. Herman Yau stepped out of the Troublesome Night series and producer/writer Nam Yim stepped in as director, yielding an installment that’s not only not troublesome, but doesn’t even take place at night. Billy Tang’s Dial D for Demons was pulled from the shelf and released on an unsuspecting populace who stayed home in droves. The Wicked Ghost series, which seemingly exists solely to feature a Sadako-esque ghost in the title role, spewed forth its second instalment and television producer Chiu Chun-keung threw together Model from Hell which made about $28,000 at the box office (that’s $4,000 US dollars).

But for mainstream Hong Kong film this was the year that romance broke big. The top grosser was Milkyway Image’s sunny-side-up romantic comedy Needing You ($35 million) and fifteen movies made over $10 million, the current mark of success for a domestic production. Almost without fail every movie that made it over the $10 million mark was a romance. Hong Kong movies hit it big on the international stage as well with Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love scooping up awards like candy, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee) becoming a mammoth international hit.

The biggest horror successes from an artistic point of view were so low-budget that neither has even been released on DVD. Phantom of Snake is a low-budget snake woman movie. Snake women movies crop up in Southeast Asia from time to time (the best-known in Hong Kong is Tsui Hark’s Green Snake [1993] the cheapest is 2002’s shot-on-video Snake Charmer [Hung Cheung Tak, 2002]). Despite working with even less money than the average no-budget Hong Kong movie, somehow the writer, director and producer, Hsien Yueh (in what appears to be his only film) manages to create a mood that is, well, strange. Jade Leung and Cecilia Yip (somehow lured back to the screen for this film) play snake sisters looking for their brother-in-law in contemporary Hong Kong. Other things happen, but every time the plot seems about to lock in it all evaporates into scented mist before your eyes. Viewers who don’t turn this mind trap off after the first 15 minutes will find themselves hypnotized for the duration of the running time.

The second no-budget triumph is director Cheang Pou-soi’s Diamond Hill. Ultra-cheap, but shot in a verité style that makes the most of its limited resources, Diamond Hill is a V.C. Andrews-style urban gothic where the emotions have been freeze dried until they’re cracked and brittle. Carrie Ng and Hui Siu-hung play the adoptive parents of Maggie Poon, whose brother they leave in the orphanage. He escapes and hides under his sister’s bed, setting up camp there for the next several years. Brother and sister are torn apart again when Carrie Ng sells the bed and Maggie races through the night to rescue her lost sibling. As in a 19th-century Gothic novel, apparitions and spirits are eventually explained away with convoluted but natural explanations; ghosts are more of a metaphor here, but no less powerful for all that. Even the shooting location is something of a ghost. Flashbacks to the children’s youth are shot in Tai Hom Village in the Diamond Hill district of Hong Kong, which was demolished in 2001. Most of the inhabitants had been relocated when Diamond Hill was shot, and the film stands as a testament to a piece of Hong Kong’s past now buried beneath the developer’s bulldozer.

2001

This year saw the old guard (Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Wilson Yip) fall apart as their big movies turned out to be creatively bankrupt. Tsui Hark’s Legend of Zu was an overstuffed mass of CGI that was dead on arrival. Wilson Yip’s glossy, big budget action comedy 2002 took on Cheang Pou-soi’s Horror Hotline…Big Head Monster and received a sound thrashing. In 2002, teeny-bopper bad boy, Nic Tse, plays an ill-fated cop who is assigned to the 2002 department of the Hong Kong Police force, a special unit that utilises man/ghost partnerships to police the dead. Bristling with visual elan and deadpan comedy, the movie feels the need to take a dour turn one-third of the way through and goes from being a light romp to a gloomy trudge. After the one hour mark, the only notable moment is the final action sequence which manages to combine every single bad Hong Kong cliché into one big spitball (3) and flick it in the audience’s eye.

Horror Hotline...Big Head Monster

Horror Hotline…Big Head Monster is, on the other hand, the movie that firmly entrenched Cheang Pou-soi as a true horror auteur. HH…BHM centres around a radio call-in show about ghosts. Francis Ng plays the producer who slowly gets sucked into an annihilating mess as an urban legend about a big-headed baby keeps surfacing. Cheang’s cluttered compositions, drab office interiors, and lifeless exterior locations give us a Hong Kong drained completely of its vital force. His characters are all relentlessly absorbed with themselves, and it’s only as the movie runs them through the mill that they learn to feel some empathy for those around them. Like a sadistic emotional experiment, everything seems to be designed to get these characters to move beyond their overwhelming self-absorption. Unfortunately, once they do so they get their livers handed to them on a plate. Although the rip-off ending (it is actually a shot-for-shot steal from The Blair Witch Project [Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999]) leaves a bitter taste in the viewer’s mouth, Cheang proves that the good 2/3 of his low-budget feature is worth all of Wilson Yip’s big-budget knuckle-dragger.

Ann Hui jumped on the horror train with her much-heralded Visible Secret, which wound up being just another boring arthouse belch without an engaging or original bone in its body. Shu Qi sees dead people and new boyfriend Eason Chan finally realizes that – ulp! – She’s dead, too. Yes, it’s that time: Hong Kong is ripping off The Sixth Sense. With slick production values and decent performances this movie can still only elicit a shrug. The first five minutes where a decapitated Anthony Wong runs up and down a crowded sidewalk trumps the whole rest of the movie and Hui merely shows her incompetence as a director by putting it at the beginning of her “Who Cares?” carnival.

2002

After a dismal 2001 thank god for 2002, a banner year for horror if a bad year for the population of Hong Kong. Plunging property prices, massive job loss as businesses moved to Mainland China, rising suicide rates, and a spike in the number of personal bankruptcies (more in 2002 than in the previous 20 years combined) made for a very unhappy city. Entertainment news was equally downbeat. Pauline Chan, a seriously disturbed young actress killed herself, and industry legends Lo Lieh and Chang Cheh both passed away. Cecilia Cheung broke her back in an ill-advised stunt and Maggie Cheung got divorced. By comparison, the trial of Nic Tse for forcing his driver to take the rap for a car accident (his defense involved bringing his pet hedgehog to court) came almost as comic relief.

With bleakness everywhere you turned, horror movies went big budget. The year’s prestige items were all horror movies. Second tier productions included a sequel to Ann Hui’s Visible Secret (not directed by her, it turned out to be a better movie, although not by much), Cheang Pou-soi’s New Blood, Wilson Yip’s The Mummy Aged 19, and Patrick Leung’s Demi-Haunted.

The most deeply conservative of the prestige pictures was the Pang Brothers’ The Eye, which became a hit due to its slick packaging. Returning to a venerable Hong Kong tradition, Thailand is picked on, yet again, as the root of all evil. This time it’s not a blood curse, but a pair of evil transplant corneas that are to blame. Angelica Lee plays a plucky blind lass who receives the evil corneas and suddenly sees dead people. Finding this pretty upsetting, she travels to Thailand and finds out that the corneas are those of a cursed precognitive girl and will probably never give her a moment’s rest. Fortunately she kept the receipt and is able to return them to the hospital for a full refund, ending the movie blind as a bat, but happy as a clam. Besides driving the Thai Chamber of Commerce nuts this flick has little frisson or sizzle beyond the Pang brothers’ overdone camera tricks. Once you get past the intensely conservative message (it’s better to be blind than see what’s around you) it’s just The Sixth Sense. Again.

And what is it with The Sixth Sense anyways? Frankly, even the Hong Kong directors who rip it off don’t seem to know, but that doesn’t stop them from pillaging it endlessly. The Sixth Sense is a movie about seeing dead people and it has a trick ending. It also made a pile of cash. Directors monkey endlessly with the first two factors (I see dead people/trick ending) trying to reproduce the third (pile of cash).

Wellson Chin’s screenwriter, Abe Kwong, stepped in for Ann Hui to direct Visible Secret 2, which takes a stab at a Sixth Sense style “surprise” at the end. Continually on the verge of becoming creepy, it tries to do a lot with a little then gives up at the last minute, pulls off its mask and says “just kidding” to the audience. Too slow and too complicated, the movie needs a director like Steve Cheng who is willing to give up the goods in order to keep his audience from dozing off.

While almost everyone attempting Sixth Sense-style movies, it took Cheang Pou-soi to really tweak things into the fifth dimension with New Blood. A couple commits suicide and three blood donors are called at random to donate some AB negative. The man survives, but the woman dies and, in a move bound to give the Red Cross fits, she returns from the grave to kick the asses of the blood donors who separated her from her honey. Just three movies in, Cheang has established himself as Hong Kong’s best horror director. Not for him the graveyards, abandoned houses, and spooky dreamscapes of lesser filmmakers. His horror takes place in the apartment house hallway, the hospital corridor, the sodium-lit night-time streets, the abandoned factory and the construction site. These are modern stages where his emotionally isolated characters bump up against one another, trying to break out of their icy cages. The social interaction in New Blood is autistic-level awkward as the three main characters shatter beneath the pressure and withdraw even further into themselves. The one character who tries to reach out winds up doing more harm than good, and Cheang plays dirty tricks on the viewer with a constantly-shifting frame of reference and an ever-receding version of reality that ultimately alienates the audience far more than most viewers will be comfortable with.

Too much reaching out takes place in Wilson Yip’s The Mummy Aged 19. This treacly horror-comedy about the value of families casts boy band stars Tsui Tin-yau and Wong You-nam of the band Shine in a Hong Kong version of I Was A Teenage Mummy. Though the film is sporadically funny, Yip mistakes sloppy sentiment glopped on in family-sized servings for heartfelt sincerity and the whole thing lurches from one predictably heart-warming moment to another. The problem is that Yip regularly indicates where the movie should be funny or heart-warming, rather than actually amusing or warming the hearts of the audience at those points. The result is a study in directorial mugging and although the concept is weird enough to be funny-ish at times, it feels too much like a drunken pitch session by out-of-work screenwriters.

Three, an anthology horror film with its segments directed by Korea’s Kim Ji-Won, Thailand’s Nonzee Nimibutr, and Hong Kong’s Peter Chan saw the Peter Chan segment, “Going Home”, become popular enough to enjoy a separate run as a 50 minute film. Starring Eric Tsang as a cop who moves into an abandoned apartment building with his son this eerie little tale was shot by Christopher Doyle and is the best thing Peter Chan has done since he directed Comrades: Almost a Love Story in 1996. Tsang meets his neighbor, a secretive herbalist played by Leon Lai, when his son goes missing. Tsang becomes convinced that Lai is to blame but things quickly spin out of control. What starts as a shifty story about a psychotic shut-in turns into a delicately shaded story about a man sticking by his wife. Tsang and all the Hong Kong modernity he represents has no place for classical romantics like Lai and his wife, who wind up getting ground into bean paste by the city in which they live.

Meanwhile, Tsui Hark hired Wellson Chin, for some strange reason, to direct his back-to-its-roots hopping vampire movie, Era of the Vampires. Nothing in Chin’s career would seem to indicate that this is the kind of movie he could do well and apparently no one else thought so either. It got released in Singapore first, then was thrown at some screens in Hong Kong and wound up going straight to video in the US after running for a few midnight shows in New York and LA. This is all a pity because Era is the closest thing to a good old fashioned hopping vampire movie as Hong Kong is likely to release in the next hundred years. Pickled in the same rank rural stew as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Era jazzes up hopping vampires with some gritty fu and goopy physical effects. CGI is kept to a minimum and the eccentric character design, decaying period setting, and the non-stop action almost make it a good movie. Almost. The lack of discernible personalities among the four leads ultimately sinks the movie. These four act alike, sound alike, look alike, and are all equally uninteresting. To place four such non-entities in the center of a movie seems too wilful to be an accident. Perhaps it’s an experiment: can you make a good movie without any characters in it? The answer: no.

Inner Senses

The year’s most successful horror film was Leslie Cheung’s swan song, Inner Senses (Lo Chi-leung). Cheung and Karena Lam star in this riff on The Sixth Sense, but instead of celebrating the ability to see dead people, Inner Senses enfolds the viewer in a claustrophobic, suffocating embrace. Karena Lam’s psychic powers are ruining her life. A virtual shut-in, trying to get through the day without being driven crazy by the legions of corpses she sees in every corner, she is sent to see psychologist, Leslie Cheung, for a cure.

Leslie is even lonelier than she is; a busy guy who breaks his back under a staggering caseload in order to prove to himself that he’s successful and important. He’s arrogant, she wants to die, and talking cures sputter to a stop in the face of the killing isolation of their emotionally sterile lives. New apartments, paranoid neighbors, and the suffocating weight of urban loneliness all add up to a world where being alone and being dead are the same thing.

Like the films of Cheang Pou-soi, Inner Senses posits a Hong Kong where every last individual is a ghost, and they all haunt themselves. In a macabre and depressing twist, the film climaxes with Leslie being driven to the edge of a building, preparing to commit suicide. In 2003, the much-loved actor did indeed jump off a building, ending his career at the age of 47. Truly tasteless tabloid writers suggested that he had become possessed by a ghost during the filming of Inner Senses.

So what has does post-’97 Hong Kong horror have to say for itself? A lot. It’s been liberal and conservative, big budget, low budget and no budget. It’s ripped off Japan’s The Ring and Hollywood’s The Sixth Sense shamelessly, but it’s also generated some characters and films that could only have sprung from Hong Kong’s fevered brow. It’s seen the rise and fall of Wilson Yip as a horror director, the end of Ivan Lai and Wellson Chin’s current careers, and it’s seen Ann Hui and Tsui Hark sputter to a creative dead end. However, it’s also seen the emergence of three of Hong Kong’s best horror directors: Herman Yau, Steve Cheng and Cheang Pou-soi.

Herman Yau likes to wander into other genres, and his approach to horror is often loaded with jokes. Steve Cheng seems obsessed with critiquing capitalism under the guise of horror. However, he’s also been seduced into pleasing the audience and will never become a control freak auteur. He’s too aware of the necessity of delivering the genre’s requisite sex and violence in order to please the crowd.

Out of the three, it’s Cheang Pou-soi who stands the most chance of becoming a true blue auteur. With his bloodless Hong Kong populated with isolated, alienated head cases, and his every location looking like corporate headquarters for Bleakness Inc. he has given modern horror a new palette. As for the lure of sex and violence, for Cheang violence is used with relative restraint. And sex? His characters don’t seem to have sex, in fact they barely seem to be able to look one another in the eye.

But the current capstone of post-’97 Hong Kong horror doesn’t come from any of these directors. Instead it comes courtesy of mega-pop duo the Twins. Just as 1998 saw the period martial arts film The Storm Riders become the year’s biggest hit, and 2000 saw the romance Needing You do the same, 2003 finally sees a horror movie, The Twins Effect, come in as the year’s top grosser (okay, the number two grosser, since it was beaten out by Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich, 2003) (4)). A particularly loud raspberry blown by an overconfident film industry that’s giddy with relief after its brush with death, The Twins Effect (Dante Lam) is a bubble gum pop action movie about warring vampire clans, starring multi-platinum recording duo The Twins. And Jackie Chan. Not so much a movie as a series of well-executed setpieces strung together with no connective tissue, The Twins Effect pits local Hong Kong heroes against Western invaders (who penetrate Hong Kong through a Christian church, the traditional toehold of Western colonialism) and sends the Westerners packing.

Chinese actors versus Western evil doers in a movie that looks like it could be released in any North American multiplex without anyone thinking a thing of it, The Twins Effect is a statement of independence for the Hong Kong film industry. The fact that it’s a horror movie is just one more weird episode in the long, strange, constantly-mutating life cycle of Hong Kong’s cheapest and most durable genre.

Endnotes

  1. Ghost Story “Godmother of Mongkok” (1997), Horoscope 1: The Voice from Hell (1999), Horoscope II: The Woman from Hell (2000), Evil Fade (2000); Bio-Cops (2000) and Sleeping with the Dead (2002).
  2. Acting since 1939, Helena Law Lan has appeared in well over 100 movies. She is most famous these days for her roles in 43 horror movies since 1994. Anthony Wong, on the other hand, has only been in about 20.
  3. For the record, the finale consists of two best friends fighting, in the pouring rain, while a power pop ballad wails, and they have flashbacks to happier times, in slow motion, while cross-cutting to emergency room doctors trying to save a patient’s life.
  4. To be a completist, 2001 saw Stephen Chiau’s Shaolin Soccer claim the lion’s share of the box office, and the breakaway hit of 2002 was Andrew Lau’s action film, Infernal Affairs.

About The Author

Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of Subway Cinema, a film programming collective in New York City dedicated to increasing exposure for popular Asian movies neglected by Western critics and audiences.