Insomnia can be like a curse, a yearning for sleep that yields no rest and paints the days with a lingering greyness but the regular kind of sleeplessness rarely has consequences as extreme as those experienced by the beleaguered protagonists of Herman Yau’s The Sleep Curse (失眠). Historical trauma and cultural memories continue to haunt the present, the refusal to lay the dead to rest giving rise to a hundred hungry ghosts all asking for recognition and some gesture of atonement from those that have come later. Yau’s film touches on some thorny, even taboo areas but doing so in the context of a Category III horror extravaganza that eventually descends into a bloodbath of perverse depravity might even push poor taste too far.
In 1990, a Malaysian Chinese grandfather celebrates his birthday and then develops chronic insomnia which eventually drives him insane, murderous, and suicidal. Meanwhile, abrasive professor Lam Sik-ka (Anthony Wong) is hard at work on a controversial research programme to discover a way for people to live without the need for sleep. His latest grant application has just been turned down because the university can’t see the benefit in his research and claim his methods are unethical. Sik-ka is, therefore, even happier than might be thought to reunite with a former girlfriend, Monique (Jojo Goh), who is the granddaughter of the Malaysian Chinese grandpa and suffers from a rare sleep disorder herself. It’s not for herself she’s approaching Sik-ka though, but for her brother.
For unrelated reasons, Sik-ka is also anxious to lay his own father’s ghost to rest by visiting a Taoist priest to help him remember what happened to his dad back in 1943. What ensues is two lengthy flashbacks to occupied Hong Kong in which Sik-ka’s father, Sing (also played by Wong), is coerced into collaborating with the Japanese when it is discovered that he was raised in Japan and has fluent command of the language. While Sing’s capitulation is guilt-ridden and born of fear for himself and his family, another turncoat, Chow Fok (Gordon Lam), has embraced his role as an active participant in Japanese rule, rounding up girls for the local “comfort station” which he himself runs.
The Japanese are an easy target, but Yau has his sights set on the evils of collaboration and his eye is particularly unforgiving. Sik-ka’s father is repeatedly described as a “good man”, though often by those seeking to justify his less good actions. The film acknowledges the difficulty of Sing’s position as a single father desperate to protect his son and mother yet fearing that one wrong move or unwise refusal may get them all killed. He does good where he can – helping a small number of young comfort women to escape, but finds that his “good” deed provokes only more harm when 40 are required to take the place of four escaped. Sing saves one of twins, “awarded” to him in place of a wife by the lecherous Japanese Colonel, but finds himself the subject of a curse by her supernaturally endowed sister who casts her evil eye upon all those who have wronged her.
This particular plot development makes little sense seeing as Sing is the one thing between her sister and the fate worse than death that she has just endured. Nevertheless, the vengeful ghost of a betrayed woman follows one generation to the next in her quest for retribution, remaining unseen and unremembered by those who should avenge her. Given the sensitivity of the issues, which maybe more pronounced in territories further North than Hong Kong, it is perhaps in poor taste to make them the centre of an exploitation leaning Category III horror film, offering only the message that the unresolved past will eventually consume the children who inherit only past trauma from their guilt ridden (or unrepentant) forebears.
Yau begins in the mode of tame absurdity as Sik-ka calmly breaks into a morgue for an impromptu bit of brain theft (later shoving his loot into a hollowed out durian fruit to hide his crime), but descends into blood soaked depravity in the increasingly strange final reel. Genuinely outrageous, though also incoherent, The Sleep Curse should provoke nightmares enough with its shocking, gore filled finale but may also leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles – contains intense gore/violence!)