Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰, Mark Lee, 2020)

“The most important thing in life is to know how we die” according to the very efficient lady manning the desk in the Labour Department of Hell where, it seems, everyone has to do their bit. No rest for the wicked, even in death. A glorious satire on the business of modern living, Mark Lee’s Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰) sends its recently deceased hero on a quest to find meaning in his life from the other side as he becomes an unwilling contestant in an undead variety show. 

Wong Hui Kwai (Wong You-nam) has been dead for 22 days. Unusually, he can’t remember how he died, and as he tells the lady at Labour Department of Hell when asked what he achieved while alive was known chiefly for his ability to install internet cables with maximum efficiency (unfortunately Hell is already fully covered for wi-fi). Sadly, Hui Kwai didn’t do anything of note in his life and now it’s over he’d really rather just take it easy, which is why when he’s offered a nice job he tries to back out towards fiery torture. Nevertheless he finds himself a sudden replacement for a contestant who ascended at an extremely inconvenient moment right before he was supposed to take to the stage on Hell’s hottest variety show Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost in which the prize is instant resurrection. Hui Kwai needs to succeed in three rounds of ghostly pranks, making the living faint, possessing a living person, and then scaring someone to death. 

Asked again on the stage where the MC reframes his abilities as a cable guy to paint him as a concealment expert, a very useful skill for a ghost trying to scare people, Hui Kwai is again forced to confront the fact that his life was extremely disappointing, his only “talent” was going to work, sleeping, and then going to work again. You might even say he was already a ghost before he died, though the resurrection prize does sound good because it would allow him to take care of some “unfinished business” with his childhood sweetheart Bo Yee (Venus Wong) whom, he fears, is being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous estate agent. As General Bull tells him, his problem is he needs to believe in himself more, pointing out that his nerdy appearance is just like that of a super hero before they discover their hidden powers. He never accomplished anything because he never really tried, if he wants his life back he’ll have to actually fight for it. 

Unfortunately, having been dead only 22 days he’s not exactly powerful which is why he’s abruptly sucked into the dream catcher set up by eccentric ghost enthusiast Ling Kay (Cecilia So Lai Shan) who has some “unfinished business” of her own, trying to trap a spirit in the hope that they’ll be able to make contact with her late father. Lee has a lot of fun with the gadgetry of the supernatural which runs from Ling Kay’s old school dream catcher and Ouija boards to water pistols filled with ghost-busting pee and children’s flashlights “blessed” with the ability to burn up spirits. Are you a ghost needing to find an unlucky person to scare? There’s an app for that, and it works with your “Fat-bit” wristwatch. Meanwhile, even in Hell there are variety shows sponsored by Starbucks Coffins which have breaks featuring ads for services you can use to offload your unwanted funerary offerings. Paper money is no longer any good, in the after life they use “Helipay”, but General Bull who can presumably beam himself anywhere still travels in a gothic rickshaw pulled by an unfortunate underling forced to re-enact his suicide every night as part of his eternal torment. 

Running Ghost excels in its madcap world building in which the after life is somehow much more technologically advanced than the mortal realm, all slick touch screens and augmented reality, but perhaps still subject to the same old vices in which the undead vacuously watch reality shows and get their kicks pranking the living. Still, only after he’s died can Hui Kwai make the zero to hero journey, realising his unfinished business is really learning to unlock his latent potential which he does by protecting someone else, just not the someone he originally came back to protect. A much needed shot in the arm for HK supernatural comedy, Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost is a spooky delight. 


Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Legally Declared Dead (死因無可疑, Steve Yuen Kim-Wai, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” a well-meaning insurance agent is advised in Steve Yuen Kim-Wai’s Legally Declared Dead (死因無可疑), though he struggles to fully understand its meaning and in the end you have to wonder how good his intentions really were. Yusuke Kishi’s novel The Black House has been adapted twice before, firstly in an idiosyncratically absurdist take by Yoshimitsu Morita, and then in Korea by Shin Terra who remained firmly within the realms of contemporary K-horror. Yuen lands somewhere between the two, adopting a stylish veneer of neo noir as the traumatised hero has his worldview upended by heinous immorality. 

Yet as Wing-shun (Carlos Chan Ka-Lok) tells Ching (Stephen Au Kam-tong), the office investigator, he’s just a broker and it doesn’t do to be suspicious of all his clients. A nice, well mannered young man, Wing-shun is all poised customer service charm, but he also firmly believes that the business of insurance is a noble good, that he’s helping people by being there for them when disaster strikes. As such, he doesn’t like to think that people are abusing the system, and is reluctant to reject a claim. On the other hand, he calms a pair of panicked gangsters who are most definitely on the fiddle by explaining that neither he nor his colleague can help them because being a broker is like being a dealer at the casino, they can only push the paperwork to the floor manager who alone has the authority to decide whether or not to pay out and wait for their instructions. 

Wing-shun’s casino metaphor is more true than he intends it, what else is insurance after all than a kind of gambling? Wing-shun can tell himself he’s there to provide relief and support in times of need, but really he’s betting against misery which might be better than betting in its favour but it’s still wagering people’s lives. That fact’s brought home to him when he takes a call late one evening from a man who asks him if they pay out on suicide. Cheerful as ever, Wing-shun asks for his policy number to check the paperwork before realising the darkness inherent in the question and telling the person on the other end of the phone not to do anything rash, “money doesn’t solve everything”. The man simply asks for his name and then abruptly hangs up. Wing-shun chalks it up to just another weird thing that sometimes happens and forgets about it but the next day he’s told that a client has personally requested him to talk over their policy and wants a home visit to a rural location outside the city. A little bemused, Wing-shun does as he’s told and encounters Chu Chun-tak (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), not realising he’s the man from the phone only noticing he’s behaving quite strangely. Suddenly Chun-tak starts shouting for his son Kafu and gesturing to another room inside which Wing-shun discovers the boy hanging. 

The boy’s death triggers painful memories for Wing-shun who is burdened with a sense of guilt over the death of his older brother in childhood. Unable to escape the idea he’s been set up and Chun-tak only invited him out here to “find” the body, Wing-shun is convinced that he killed Kafu in order to claim his life insurance payout. Kafu was Chun-tak’s stepson and also had learning difficulties, while Chun-tak’s wife Shum Chi-ling (Karena Lam Ka-Yan) is partially sighted and walks with a pronounced limp. Wing-shun is particularly worried because Chun-tak also has a policy on her and it’s reasonable to assume she’ll be next in the firing line. He struggles, however, to convince others of his suspicions. The policeman investigating closes the case when the autopsy comes back with suicide as the cause of death, attributing the motive to exam stress, while the insurance company fails to find evidence to deny the claim.  

Unlike the other adaptations, Legally Declared Dead keeps the suicide option on the table while Wing-shun begins to go quietly out of his mind. Meanwhile, his psychology student girlfriend (Kathy Yuen Ka-Yee) hooks him up with her dubious professor (Liu Kai-chi) who is studying the “criminal personality” and claims that while some people commit crime because of trauma and desire a few so because they’re simply born bad and can never be saved. These people, he says, are manipulative narcissists who often exploit the vulnerable, making them a kind of “slave”. Professor Kam becomes overly invested in Wing-shun’s case, convinced on meeting him that Chun-tak is a clear case of “criminal personality”, murdered his son, and is almost certainly going to murder his wife. But is it really fair to decide someone’s killed their child just because they’re a bit odd and admittedly desperate for money, aren’t they just being judgemental and prejudiced? Come to that, is it sexist and ablest to assume that Chi-ling is naive and powerless, that she is a potential victim and could not have been involved in her son’s death or conversely maybe planning to off her husband?

Wing-shun lives with a collection of rare insects including a few praying mantises, which he states cannot be caged in pairs because the female will devour the male, but he continues to think of Chi-ling as sweet and harmless seeing her tenderly calm her husband down after starting to accompany him on their daily visits to the insurance office to ask about the money. On the other hand, with her limp and milky eye Chi-ling is also uncomfortably coded as villainous in an unpleasant alignment of physical deformity and “evil”, while Chun-tak is also assumed to be abusive largely because he struggles to communicate in the “normal” way. 

Nevertheless, the idea that some people are deliberately maiming themselves to claim on “workers’ insurance” either at their own behest or forced into it by loansharking gangsters pursuing gambling debts is presented as no real surprise just another element of a cynical and duplicitous society. Wing-shun knew this, but perhaps didn’t really believe it. The Chu case exposes to him the ugliness of the world in which he lives, raising with it old memories of his childhood trauma, the very kind of trauma which professor Kam insists causes some to commit crimes. Becoming fixated on the idea of Chun-tak as a murder, Wing-shun descends into nervous paranoia but is perhaps less interested in getting justice for Kafu and protecting Chi-ling than vindicating himself and defending the “nobility” of insurance as a concept for social good while avoiding dealing with his own childhood trauma in refusing his responsibility towards his brother. 

Shooting the pulpy material with a stylish, B-movie sheen, Yuen closes with a Silence of the Lambs-inspired climax which sees Wing-shun venture alone into the nest of killer, repeatedly blinded by ultraviolet light and denied the ability to fully asses his reality. He thinks he finally understands Ching’s caution that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions” which he perhaps had in his desire to get justice for Kafu and protect Chi-ling, but in the end he might have to admit that the killer had a point when they said he  was ‘just like me”, a “criminal personality” consumed by latent violence caused by unresolved childhood trauma. “You do what you need to to survive, you scam people and they scam you” Wing-shun’s friend shrugs, but it’s a lesson Wing-shun learns all too well, once again refusing his responsibility as a secondary victim looks to him for help but discovers only cold and cynical resentment.


Legally Declared Dead streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be available to stream in New York State on Sept. 5 only as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Witness Out of the Blue (犯罪現場, Fung Chih-chiang, 2019)

“The world is not supposed to be like this” a failed revenger exclaims as he breathes his last in Fung Chih-chiang’s absurdist noir crime thriller A Witness Out of the Blue (犯罪現場) in which the career criminal on the run turns out to be the only noble soul. In a world like this, an eccentric policeman later suggests, good people can commit crimes while those who prosecute or are victimised by them are often no better than that which they claim to hate, eagerly taking advantage of a bad situation to take what they feel at least they are entitled to. 

It all links back to an unsolved murder, one of the many “crime scenes” referenced in the Chinese title. The dead man, Tsui (Deep Ng Ho-Hong), is believed to be part of a gang led by notorious underworld figure Sean Wong (Louis Koo Tin-lok) who was responsible for a botched jewellery store robbery which went south when the police stooge blew his cover trying to stop one of the gang members getting violent with a hostage. Wong shot the undercover policeman and opened fire on the police, eventually escaping our second scene of crime with the loot, while an old lady was so frightened she had a heart attack, and the store assistant who tried to raise the alarm was left paralysed. Police inspector Yip (Philip Keung Ho-man) who ran the undercover operation against Wong’s gang is convinced that Wong killed his associate during a dispute over dividing the loot and is fixated on bringing him in. Eccentric cop Larry Lam (Louis Cheung), however, is not convinced in part because he’s patiently listened to the only eye witness, a parrot, who says Wong didn’t do it. 

Nicknamed “garbage” and apparently a model cop until some kind of accident a few years previously, Lam is certainly an unusual law enforcement officer. For one thing, he’s in deep debt to loan sharks after borrowing money to start a cat sanctuary because he felt sorry for the abandoned felines left to cower in the rain in the face of the world’s indifference. Lam is convinced that he can get the parrot to talk, if only he can figure out how to communicate with it seeing as the only words it knows are “help me”, “genius”, and “idiot”. Based on the parrot’s testimony and his own gut feeling, Lam doesn’t think Wong is guilty so he has three other suspects: the son of the woman who died who works as a butcher at the market, the paralysed store assistant who has since got religion, and her security guard boyfriend (Andy On) who was rendered powerless in the attack, unable to protect her and apparently still carrying an immense amount of anger and resentment towards the criminals. Lam also comes, however, to doubt his superior wondering if his war against Wong is less in the pursuit of justice than revenge for the death of his officer. 

Yip and Wong are in some ways mirror images of each other, the morally questionable cop and the noble criminal. On the run, Wong takes up lodging with a cheerful woman named Joy (Jessica Hsuan) who is visually impaired but seems to think Wong is a good person even though she can’t “see” him. All of Joy’s other residents are extremely elderly, one of them sadly lamenting that the man who previously inhabited Wong’s room died peacefully in his sleep though he was “only 95”. “Money is no use after you die”, they tell him in an effort to persuade him to join in some 100th birthday celebrations, “life is all about contribution”. Quizzed on what he’d do with the money, all Wong wanted was to be able to sleep and as we see he seems to be suffering with some kind of psychosis, experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations of teeming ants and the ghostly voices of his former gang members. Yet he’s not “bad” in the way Yip characterised him to be, he never kills anyone he didn’t have to, is indignant about being accused of betraying his own, and is just as resentful towards Yip as Yip is towards him for the unfairness of his petty vendetta. 

But like all the best crime stories, all there is in the end is futility. The world shouldn’t be like this, but it is the way it is. Maybe Joy and her pensioners have it right, quietly living their lives of peaceful happiness being good to each other while evil developers breathe down their necks trying to destroy even their small idyll of goodness. Wong is drawn to them, but perhaps knows he’ll never belong in their world of infinite generosity though perhaps oddly he’s the only one who doesn’t really seem to care so much about the loot. Still, as Lam has it “Life is full of wonders” like crime-fighting parrots and eccentric policemen who stand in line buying limited edition trainers on behalf loansharks to finance their animal sanctuaries. Good people also break the law. “In memory of lost souls” reads the sign above the final scene of crime, and it’s not without its sense of irony. 


A Witness Out of the Blue streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Baby : The Secret Diary of A Mom To Be (Baby復仇記, Luk Yee-sum, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“You’re finally a mom just like us!” a supportive friend exclaims in Luk Yee-sum’s pregnancy comedy Baby: The Secret Diary of a Mom to Be (Baby復仇記), “women are destined to be moms, that makes your life perfect”. A humorous take on maternal anxiety, Luk’s otherwise warm and empathetic screenplay cannot help but feel slightly out of touch in its wilfully mixed messages, as evidenced in the total lack of irony in the above statements. While the heroine is encouraged to have it all, her existence is still defined by the ability to bear children, all her other achievements apparently meaningless should she “fail” to become a mother while the choice not to is so invalid as not even to be considered. 

In her early 30s, Carmen (Dada Chan Ching) is a high-flying career woman who has elected not to have children with her basketball player husband, Oscar (Kevin Chu Kam-yin). She’s just been (verbally) offered a big promotion managing a new office in Vietnam, while her circle of friends are all housewives and mothers. Carmen had in any case believed that she would not be able to have a child due to suffering with polycystic ovary syndrome, but the discovery that she may be expecting could not have come at a worse time especially as her overbearing mother-in-law Margaret (Candice Yu On-on) has hired a weird maternity coach (Tam Yuk-ying) to help Carmen fulfil her purpose in life by providing a grandchild. She considers taking an abortion pill without telling Oscar about the baby but when he finds out by accident they decide to go through with the pregnancy. 

Of course, that means Vietnam is off. According to her boss they wanted someone “right away” and so sent a colleague instead. “Maybe you’ll think differently after your baby is born” the boss adds, not quite suggesting her career’s over but definitely implying her prospects have been significantly reduced. Meanwhile, the other women in the office no longer seem to take her seriously. Everyone is telling her to take things easy, leave the heavy work to the young ones, as if she’s just biding her time to motherhood and an early retirement from the employment scene. 

Carmen’s anxieties are in many way in regards to the ways her life will change along with the impending loss of freedom and independence. She resents the baby for messing up her career plans, while fearing that she’s being asked to abandon her own hopes and desires in order to become someone’s mum rather than just someone. It doesn’t help that Margaret has already more or less taken over, wielding both her economic advantage and her position as grandma-in-waiting to exert control over Carmen’s living situation. She moves maternity coach Tam into the couple’s home, the pair of them boxing up her evening attire and designer shoes as things a mother no longer needs without bothering to ask her, literally ripping away the vestiges of her old life while refusing her any kind of autonomy. 

Yet her reluctance is reframed as childhood trauma in dysfunctional relationships with her own mother who was apparently largely absent playing mahjong, and a nun at her school who was perhaps a surrogate maternal figure she was unfairly ripped away from when her mother ran out of money for the fees and she had to leave. Carmen’s lack of desire for motherhood is then framed as a kind of illness that must be cured so her life will “perfect”, the implication being that the free choice not to have children is not valid, only a corruption of the feminine ideal born of failed maternity. By paying a visit to Sister Cheung and then to her mother (who remains off screen) she can “repair” her problematic attitude, eventually submitting herself entirely to Margaret’s maternal authority in recognising that her overbearing caring also comes from a place of love and kindness even as it reinforces conservative social codes. 

In a surprising role reversal, meanwhile, Oscar adopts the position of the trophy husband whose career ambitions are perhaps unfairly dismissed by Carmen who has the better prospects for offering financial security. With impending fatherhood on the horizon he tries to assert his masculinity in looking for a steady job but soon realises he has no real skills for the workplace and is later inducted into a strange dad’s club which provides odd jobs and a place for harried fathers to hang out playing video games in escape from their stressful family man lives. A kind and patient man Oscar is perhaps understandably irritated when Carmen ironically snaps at him that he should give up his career ambitions to facilitate hers but later signals his willingness to become a househusband which reinforces the broadly positive have it all message while problematically continuing the narrative that a woman’s fulfilment is found only in motherhood and without it her life is incomplete. 

Nevertheless, Baby: Secret Diary of a Mom to Be has its charms in its empathetic examination of maternal anxiety while highlighting if not quite condemning the costs of living in a patriarchal society. Carmen’s “happily married” friends each have problems of their own they’re afraid to share lest it damage the image of familial bliss they’ve been keen to cultivate. Their secret unhappiness is strangely never a factor in Carmen’s decision making, nor is the quest for that ideal ever critiqued despite Carmen’s eventual success in finally having it all. Still despite its mixed messaging and subtly conservative overtones, Luk’s sophisticated dialogue and quirky sensibility lend a sense of fun and irony to a sometimes dark exploration of impending parenthood.


Baby : The Secret Diary of A Mom To Be streams in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Story of Woo Viet (胡越的故事, Ann Hui, 1981)

Displacement and a legacy of violence conspire against a young man attempting to escape the trauma of war in the second in Ann Hui’s “Vietnam trilogy”, The Story of Woo Viet (胡越的故事, AKA God of Killers). Starring a young Chow Yun-fat as Chinese-Vietnamese refugee headed to Hong Kong with a hope of making it to the US, Woo Viet’s story suggests that violence may be impossible to escape in a world increasingly corrupted by human indifference while only crushing disappointment awaits for those who live on dreams alone. 

After years fighting for the South Vietnamese army, Woo Viet (Chow Yun-fat) is one of many young Chinese-Vietnamese men attempting to escape through claiming asylum in Hong Kong so that he can eventually apply for a visa to the US. The reasons he needed to leave are readily apparent. Even on the overcrowded, primitive boat on which he arrives in Hong Kong, Woo Viet has already witnessed several atrocities in which fellow passengers were dumped overboard, killed, or marooned on isolated islands. He has become the surrogate father to a little boy who is now alone on the boat because his dad was killed by the guards, and subsequently becomes a target for Viet Cong “special agents” after they strangle his friend in his sleep for having seen something he shouldn’t have.  

Luckily, Woo Viet has a friend in Hong Kong, a female “penpal” Lap Quan (Cora Miao Chien-Jen) who sent him letters he rarely answered all through the war. After Woo Viet is forced to kill a special agent in the refugee camp in order to ensure his own survival, he finds himself relying on Lap Quan to help him organise a fake passport. He no longer has the luxury of waiting to do things properly, he needs to leave the country as soon as possible. The fake passports available are, for some reason, Japanese meaning he has to learn to at least sound plausible by picking up a few handy phrases to fool the border guards. It’s in the language classes that he meets fellow refugee Shum Ching (Cherie Chung Chor-hung) who is travelling to the US because a former customer who has already emigrated told her that he wanted her to come no matter what the cost. The problem is the HK trafficker has not been honest with either of them. Woo Viet may have a decent shot at actually making it to the US, but the girls are to be sold on at the first available Chinatown, which in this case is Manila where they’re waiting for a connecting flight. Having bonded with Shum Ching, Woo Viet surprises the traffickers by giving up his chance to go to America to stay in the Philippines to try and rescue her. 

“Whichever Chinatown it is, I think my situation will be the same” Woo Viet writes back to Lap Quan, keeping up a correspondence which becomes increasingly dishonest as he struggles come to terms the shattering of all his dreams. Trapped in a Philippine Chinatown, he discovers the only way he can save Shum Ching is by serving the gangsters that “bought” her from the HK trafficker. Yet, also in his letter to Lap Quan he claims that “it is much simpler to kill people here compared to Vietnam”, while suggesting that the reason his situation is “the same” in Chinatowns the world over is that he has no real identity and can therefore “solve people’s problems with no problem” which is why he’s ended up working as a hired gun for HK gangster Chung. 

Even so, he still harbours hopes of making it to the US when he’s made enough money to “redeem” Shum Ching who is already dreaming of finding a tiny house for them both where she can cook him proper Vietnamese food. While in Manila, he’s partnered with a slightly older man, Sarm (Lo Lieh), who came from Hong Kong a decade earlier. Woo Viet thinks he should have earned plenty of money after a decade making kills for Chung, so he doesn’t understand why he’s still here rather than off somewhere else enjoying a better life. He still doesn’t quite see that Sarm is a vision of his possible future, a man so beaten down by life that his only goal is to drink himself into an early grave. Sarm no longer believes in a future for himself, but he wants to believe in one for Woo Viet, and so he tries to help him but brotherhood, like love, is no match for the casual cruelty of the world in which they live. 

Woo Viet’s floating rootlessness is perhaps an echo of a potential anxiety in a Hong Kong facing its own sense of displacement with the handover less than 20 years away, as perhaps are his feelings of hopelessness as he attempts to write himself into a better future in his now constant letters to Lap Quan in which he somewhat insensitively talks of his love for Shum Ching born precisely out of that same sense of rootless desperation. Soon after they meet, the pair attempt to visit a flower market at night but their romantic moment is disrupted by another refugee couple being caught and dragged away by police, instantly throwing a fatalistic shadow over their innocent connection. All Woo Viet wanted was an ordinary settled life, perhaps adopting that orphaned little boy from the refugee camp and bringing him with them as he and Shum Ching claim a better life in the US, but even small dreams are seemingly impossible in a world in which the predominating force is not love or compassion but violence.  


Chasing Dream (我的拳王男友, Johnnie To, 2019)

“You gotta give everything to get everything” according to an intense rocker in Johnnie To’s musical boxing romance, Chasing Dream (我的拳王男友). What turns out to be most important however is not physical endurance but emotional authenticity, if you want to be taken seriously then you have to take yourself seriously first and that means learning to find the courage to embrace your authentic self. A tale of two crazy kids chasing the Chinese Dream, To’s colourful fantasy world is not without its bite as he leans in hard to what it costs to succeed and not in what is often a merciless society.

Our hero Tiger (Jacky Heung Cho), “The Gluttonous Boxer”, is a young man who broke with his boxing master to step into the MMA ring but is also an enforcer for a shady local loansharking gang run by his manager. Aware he is approaching the end of his career – a doctor later tells him he’s in danger of going blind, rupturing his liver, and getting Parkinson’s – Tiger’s life changes one day when he recognises one of the ring girls, Cuckoo (Wang Keru), as the granddaughter of an old woman who used to sell noodles back when he studied boxing in his rural hometown. Unfortunately, Tiger’s boss has also recognised her because she is in deep debt with the mob. Some of the guys want to cut their losses and sell her on to the sex trade but Tiger, seemingly indifferent, claims he can find her a way to work off her debt and thereby kickstarts his rescue not only of her but of himself from the increasingly empty life of an ageing prize fighter. 

What he discovers is that Cuckoo is harbouring intense resentment over being seduced and betrayed by one of China’s biggest pop stars who made himself a name as the “king of originality” after stealing all of her songs and leaving her in the lurch. Qu Fengfeng (Ma Xiaohui) is now a judge on China’s biggest TV singing competition Perfect Diva and Cuckoo has a plan to confront him by getting on the show, the only snag being that she is extremely unpolished as a performer. Tiger, meanwhile, wants to get out of the ring and has a plan to start his own hotpot empire essentially by copying all the best bits of the major chains and bringing them together. He vows to help Cuckoo train by having her mimic the performance styles of major stars, but what she quickly discovers is that there is no substitute for emotional authenticity. A fellow constant decides to switch her routine at the last minute after catching sight of Cuckoo rehearsing, but is unceremoniously voted off by judges who’d rather she “performed a tacky fan dance” (as she was originally planning to do) than simply copycatting famous artists. Challenged that her songs are too similar to Qu Fengfeng’s Cuckoo snaps back that it’s his style that’s close to hers, earning the admiration of astute female judge Zhao Ying (Wu Yitong) who can perhaps detect the artist inside her beginning to free itself from her sense of insecurity. 

Achieving your dreams can however come at a heavy cost. Pearl “the kick ass rocker” (Kelly Yu Wenwen) has an intense, aggressive performance style but in a running gag turns up at each consecutive audition with a new incapacity, eventually using a wheelchair and wearing a back brace only able to move her arms. “Totally worth it in the name of music!” she cheerfully explains, literally destroying herself to get to the top. Tiger does something much the same exploited as he is by his unscrupulous gangster manager, shouting out “it doesn’t hurt” as he trains by having people jump on his belly, but the battering he takes is not so much for himself as for others, stepping back into the ring in defence first of Cuckoo and then of his dejected master, Ma Qing (Shao Bing), whose attempt to defend the dignity of the noble art of boxing against the modern upstart MMA goes horribly wrong. But Tiger cannot fight others’ battles for them, and the only way he can win is by being himself while honouring their legacy. 

Finally finding how to bare their souls for all to see and “have someone share the fatigue of loneliness”, the pair learn to recalibrate their dreams while falling in love discovering that mutual support is their guiding light as they give each other the strength to be all they can be. Ostensibly somewhere in Mainland China, To’s make believe, retro future city has a colourful comic book intensity that adds a mythic quality to the saga of Tiger and Cuckoo that is perfectly in tune with his dreamy romanticism in which sudden flights of fancy including a full-blown Bollywood-style dance sequence seem entirely natural. A surprisingly moving, wilfully absurd musical love story between wildly grinning pugilist and a young woman learning to sing from the the heart, Chasing Dream is a delightful sugar pop confection in which two crazy kids find love in the ring and with it the power to believe in themselves and a better future.


Chasing Dream streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese, no subtitles)

Dragon in Jail (獄中龍, Kent Cheng Jak-Si, 1990)

“For the poor life is a punishment” according to Henry (Andy Lau Tak-Wah), the embattled hero of Kent Cheng Jak-si’s Dragon in Jail (獄中龍), a subdued heroic bloodshed offshoot in which a poor boy and rich kid meet in juvie and become best friends for life even though fate seems to have very different paths in store for them. Less a critical expose of the cruelties of an increasingly stratified society than an ode to intense male friendship, Dragon in Jail puts its hero in a different kind of cell as he tries to escape the triad net but finds himself ensnared by past crime and present rage. 

Rich kid Wayne (Kenny Ho Ka-King) ends up in a reformatory for pulling petty stunts supposedly because he doesn’t like it that his widowed mother has remarried. Different from the other boys, he’s immediately hazed and asked for his gang affiliation, only he doesn’t have one. Tough boy Henry stands up for him, roping in his other friend Skinny (John Ching Tung) to take on the cell’s Mr. Big after which the boys become firm friends as they study together to sit their A Levels while inside. Wayne wasn’t planning to take his exams as a way of getting back to his mother, but Henry convinces him that education is the one way to show the world who’s boss. The boys come top in their class, Wayne gets out and decides to go the UK to study law, while Henry serves out the remainder of his sentence in an adult prison, sentenced to four years for manslaughter after accidentally killing a triad member during a fight over protection money at his family’s kiosk. 

Despite the differences in the scope of their possibilities, Henry and Wayne remain good friends, but once Henry gets out of prison he’s nothing much to look forward to. His hopes of attending a university are dashed by his defeatist father who thinks education is pointless and blames him for the failure of their business, while he struggles to find steady employment as a man with a criminal record. Eventually he decides to work as a mechanic by day and a cram school teacher by night with the aim of saving enough to apply for uni at later date so he can marry his longstanding girlfriend, Winnie (Gigi Lai Chi). Skinny, meanwhile, gets out of jail and heads straight back to the triads, trying to convince Henry he should join too. Henry doesn’t want to, but faces constant harassment from Brother Charlie (William Ho Ka-Kui), the boss of the man he killed in the fight. When his little brother is badly burned in a triad attack, he decides his only option is to become one himself to earn the protection of Boss Sean (Leung Gam-San) who mediates an uneasy truce with the psychopathic Charlie. 

When Wayne returns from the UK after graduating law school, Henry is married and a father-to-be living in a swanky apartment having risen in the triad ranks, but he’s also a hotheaded opium addict still sparring with the very present Charlie. “I’m a bad egg! I deserve it!” Henry wails on being confronted by Wayne who points out that it was he who was always encouraging him to study so that no one would ever look down on him. Henry thinks he’s not good enough to be Wayne’s friend and fully expects to be abandoned, but after some strong words of defence from Winnie, Wayne comes around, resolving to help get his friend off the stuff. The problem is the sense of futility which has already set in. Henry has become what everyone expected him to be, a thuggish triad, because they convinced him he could become nothing else.

Winnie berates Henry for keeping his sorrows to himself, remaining sullen and resentful at his inability to escape the triad world for an honest life of safety with his new family, though he once told Wayne that he should “speak up if you feel unhappy”. Despite everything the intense friendship between the two men endures. Cheng adds to the faintly homoerotic tone by shooting his early prison scenes with a lingering romantic gaze, while Wayne seems to pine for his broody friend, affirming that “no matter what you are, you are my buddy”. A caged dragon, Henry’s vengeance is swift and brutal but he retains his nobility even in the depths of his despair, eventually taking refuge in an unconditional friendship which transcends the forces which imprison him.


The Occupant (靈氣逼人, Ronny Yu Yan-Tai, 1984)

There’s no such thing as a reasonably priced apartment, and so when you find one that seems strangely spacious for the rent, it’s prudent to wonder why that might be. Yes, that’s right, your dream apartment may in fact be haunted! Going a bit meta, Ronny Yu Yan-Tai gets in on the comedy ghost game with The Occupant (靈氣逼人), a tale of supernatural suspense starring Taiwanese-Canadian actress and singer Sally Yeh as a young woman returning from Canada for a three week stay to work on her dissertation researching “Chinese superstition”.

Having not thought to book ahead for her accommodation, Angie (Sally Yeh Chian-Wen) is shocked to discover that hotel rooms in the Hong Kong of 1984 are in no way cheap. Locked out of even the cheapest flea pits, she decides to try renting an apartment only to run into the slimy Hansome Wong (Raymond Wong Pak-Ming), an unscrupulous estate agent/used car salesman. Angie spots an apartment sitting on his board that’s in her budget and asks to see it. Hansome is delighted because it’s been on the market ages, but what he doesn’t disclose is that the reason it’s so cheap is that the place is haunted. Angie is originally quite confused by the fact her furniture seems to move back to its original position all by itself, and irritated by loud noises such as a woman singing and a couple having an argument late at night, but on being told that she’s the only resident by the decidedly creepy caretaker (Yam Ho), decides she’s not really bothered if the apartment has another occupant besides herself and anyway it might be quite useful for her thesis. 

Very much in the Wong Jing vein, much of the early comedy revolves around Hansome’s cringeworthy attempts to worm his way into Angie’s life. Luckily for her, he says, Hansome is a very “superstitious” person and so offers to show her around all the best “superstitious” sights of the city, particularly a local temple where they seem to do every kind of taoist ritual going. The problem is that Angie can’t seem to get rid of him. He even pulls the trick of saying that he left something behind in her apartment so he can come in and retrieve it, only to get his arm trapped in a priceless vase. Hearing about the ghost he vows to stay the night and protect her from the boogeyman, but he didn’t count on the real thing turning up and expelling him from the apartment in exasperation with creepy men everywhere. 

Meanwhile, Angie is actually quite taken with a handsome policeman she runs into at the airport, but incorrectly assumes he’s a “sex maniac” because he was only hanging out with her as camouflage for surveilling another woman who turned out to be a pickpocket. Valentino (Chow Yun-Fat) is an honest cop, which is why he ends up getting asked to take some time off after discovering a fellow officer visiting an establishment they were raiding on a tip off that it was employing underage girls. Like Hansome, Valentino has also taken to Angie, if in a slightly less creepy way, and the three of them eventually get together to try and solve the ghost problem (not that Angie actually has much of a problem with it). 

On investigation, Angie discovers that the previous occupant of the apartment was a nightclub singer who apparently shot herself after a failed affair with a married man who wouldn’t leave his family. She becomes ever more obsessed with the dead woman, Lisa Law (Kitman Mak Kit-Man), despite the warnings from Valentino’s former policeman turned taoist priest buddy (Lo Lieh) who tells her that the ghost most likely bears a grudge and will try to engineer a reprise of her tragedy using a susceptible subject. Yu has fun parodying some of the genre staples like magical charms supposed to ward off ghosts which get mysteriously lost at critical moments, but edges towards a real supernatural dread as the curse takes hold, swallowing our trio in a bizarre recreation of the past which accidentally reveals a long hidden truth and helps to alleviate the ghost’s anger. In her frequent voice overs recorded on a dictaphone, Angie reveals that she came to Hong Kong with a low view of “Chinese superstition” but thanks to her experiences now has a new appreciation for the power of the supernatural. Ghosts it seems can’t be exorcised so much as appeased, ignore them at your peril.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Au Revoir, Mon Amour (何日君再來, Tony Au Ting-Ping, 1991)

Love and Resistance go to war in Tony Au’s noirish romance, Au Revoir, Mon Amour (何日君再來, AKA Till We Meet Again). The evocative title sets the scene for a tale of love betrayed by changing times, but ultimately asks if love is a question of priorities and if you have the right to put your romantic destiny on hold to serve a greater good, even if that greater good is a shared ideal. Predictably, the answer may be no, because in the world of the movies at least love is an absolutist choice and you won’t be forgiven for resisting it. 

One fateful evening in the Shanghai of 1941, Resistance operative Sum (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) is an accidental witness to the murder of “notorious Japanese monks” which he later learns may have been set up by the Japanese authorities themselves. Chasing the perpetrator, Shirakawa (Jun Kunimura), through a series of back allies where he slices and dices his now redundant Chinese mercenaries, Sum is brought to a smoky nightclub where the singer, Mui-Yi (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), is none other than his one true love whom he met thanks to the Resistance movement some years earlier but was forced to leave behind with only a heartfelt letter explaining that he would return when the battle was done. Returning the favour Sum had done her in saving her life when she was about to be hit by a car, Mui-Yi tosses him a gun that allows him to defend himself against a crazed Shirakawa and thereafter shelters him in an abandoned garage until he is well enough to return to his mission. 

Heartbroken and embittered, Mui-Yi is still lowkey anti-Japanese and seemingly unafraid of telling the local goons where to get off despite her father’s attempts at collaboration. Her aunt Jing (Carrie Ng Ka-Lai), however, finds herself succumbing to the dubious charms of violent and thuggish turncoat Tit Chak-Man (Norman Chu Siu-Keung) who is working with the Japanese apparently because he thinks China is weak and unsophisticated. Tit Chak-Man thinks nothing of blowing up little children and blackmailing suspects which is how he begins to manipulate Mui-Yi after seizing her father’s bar and having him put in prison on a trumped up charge. Meanwhile, she flip flops in her relationship with Sum, at once resenting him for his tendency to disappear and then longing for his return, while he berates her in a mistaken assumption that she has decided to collaborate but promises that he will be hers and hers alone once the war is over. 

Unlike many similarly themed movies from both the Mainland and Hong Kong, the big bad is not the Japanese themselves but the Chinese who betrayed their country and sided with the enemy. Somewhat two dimensional, Tit Chak-Man is a thuggish brute who is prepared to do anything and everything to stamp out the Resistance but is at once humanised by his intense romance with Jing which continues even after she attempts to assassinate him and eventually proves his weakness when he refuses to abandon her to escape from a baying mob. Though Shirakawa is indeed crazed and bloodthirsty, we’re shown his opposite in the gentle, sensitive Noguchi (Hidekazu Akai) who has also fallen in deep and selfless love with Mui-Yi and is willing to facilitate her romance with Sum while doing everything he can to keep her safe. 

Years later, Sum irritably points out that Noguchi had a choice in serving his country and was therefore free to choose love instead which seems extremely disingenuous seeing as he was most likely (in some way) a conscript too but was in his own way resisting in order to serve the best interests of his country. Sum chose China over Mui-Yi. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to wait in line until you’ve finished being a revolutionary hero and have the proper time to devote to love, no one likes being second choice even if you’re right behind “freedom” when it comes to priorities. To save his love, Sum sent it into the arms of the enemy but failed to realise that she might also find a home there or at least a sense of relief in no longer needing to wait for someone who might never return. Can there be love in time of war? Yes, but love like revolution is a choice and it won’t wait for you forever, if you betray it you may not be forgiven. 


Fortune Star trailer (no subtitles)

Apart (散後, Lester Chan Chit-man, 2020)

“There’s gotta be a price for chasing dreams” sighs the heroine of Lester Chan Chit-man’s Apart (散後) as she mulls over lost love and the fight for Hong Kong independence. A collection of youngsters find themselves swept up in the Umbrella Movement, but some are more committed to the cause than others and divided loyalties are enough to eventually pull even those who love each other apart. 

Yin (Will Or), his cousin Toh (Chan Lit-man), Yin’s girlfriend Maryanne (Sofiee Ng Hoi-Yan), and the bashful Shi (Yoyo Fung) are all earnest university students studying hard to build professional lives for themselves. Maryanne is strongly against Mainland interference and has become a keen participant in the Umbrella Movement protests, dragging Yin and his more committed cousin along for the ride. The conflict lies in the fact that Yin comes from a fairly wealthy family. His father, Hung (Lester Chan Chit-man), is the CEO of a successful coach company and strongly pro-China. Authoritarian in the extreme, he thinks that you have to respect order and that the future lies in the Mainland. Yin’s animosity towards him may be more youthful rebellion against his hypocrisy in his many affairs and subsequent remarriage to younger woman Yin doesn’t seem to care for, than it is true political conviction. Toh’s father, meanwhile, is originally sympathetic towards the protestors and against Mainland interference (if only to needle Hung) but changes his tune when the protests start affecting his business.

“It turns out some people just want to make a living” Yin admits trying to broker peace, but finds his loyalties continually strained as he tries to balance his desire for Maryanne with his personal ambition. As the protests intensify, Yin pulls back. He objects to his friend’s increasing conviction that there can be no victory without violence and fears the outcome of a battle fought on such tense fault lines. Maryanne, however, doubles down, devoting all her energies to the movement, unforgiving of Yin when he dares to step back on the night that his grandmother dies and secretly beginning to doubt him, riddled with romantic jealousy over his growing attraction to Shi. 

In some ways Maryanne represents for him Hong Kong, while Shi represents the Mainland. Yin is a man pulled between two poles and perhaps treating neither of them with the respect they really deserve. The years wear on and the Umbrella Movement winds down. Yin pursues his technological interests in the US, perhaps hoping to escape the HK/China divide through removing himself to another continent. The crisis does not however stop. Maryanne becomes a lawmaker, trying to further her aims in the political arena but encountering fierce resistance. She is lonely and tired, but refuses to give up. Yin finds himself torn, in love with Maryanne but considering settling down with Shi who, like him, is ready for “a settled life”, while Maryanne knows she cannot rest until Hong Kong is free. He won’t come to the protests with her because he fears damaging his prospects on the Mainland, and she won’t be welcome if she accompanies him there (not that she would want to). Politics drives them apart, and as Maryanne said there’s a price for following your dreams. 

Toh, a little younger, remains committed to the ideal but also tempered by practicality, changing the future through teaching the past while his Chinese-American step-cousin, Jessica (Jocelyn Choi), eventually returns to chronicle the battle for democracy from an international perspective. In his student days, someone asks Yin why it is they who have to fight this battle and he replies that they alone can afford this naivety. They can afford to be bold, passionate, reckless, unrelenting, and unafraid of the consequences because they are young. As they grow older, some of them grow away. Yin gives in to practicalities, leans towards his father’s point of view, and eventually does what he thinks is right in looking for peace and compromise, but his actions betray Maryanne’s revolution. Maryanne looks for political solutions, but finds them slow going nevertheless continuing the fight. Nothing may change, but we’re here to show them we won’t mindlessly obey, Shi offers of the Umbrella Movement, filling the streets with the colour of resistance in tiny paper umbrellas in a vibrant yellow.


Apart was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)