J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls found itself out of favour until a phenomenally successful stage production brought it back into the national consciousness in the early ‘90s, but even if some decry its inherent melodrama as a relic of another era the play’s comments on the entrenched classism of British society sadly still ring true. An Inspector Calls is many things, but one thing it defiantly is not is funny – a series of concentric tales of betrayals and oppressions, Priestley’s drama lays bare the callousness with which the privileged bolster their position through the story of one faceless factory girl standing in for an entire social class whose lives are often at the mercy of those “above” them.
In adapting Priestley’s play as a Chinese New Year movie (a strange concept in itself), Herman Yau and Raymond Wong relocate to contemporary Hong Kong, re-conceiving it as a broad comedy of the kind one might expect for the festive period. The setup is however still the same. The Kau family will be receiving a visitation – this time from Inspector Karl (Louis Koo Tin-lok) who has some difficult news for each of them. Three hours previously, a young woman committed suicide in her apartment by drinking bleach, taking the child she was carrying with her. Inspector Karl views this as a double murder and, based on the diary they found at the crime scene, has brought the reckoning over to the Kaus’.
The Kaus, at the present time, are preparing an engagement party for daughter Sherry (Karena Ng) who will be marrying the handsome younger brother of a factory owner, Johnnie (Hans Zhang Han). What no one can know is that the family business is going under, the Kaus are broke, mum and dad don’t get on, and all of this finery is merely rented affectation. The only member of the family who still seems to have something like a social conscience – Tim (Gordon Lam Ka-tung), the 27-year-old younger son, is viewed by all as a feckless and naive hippy, hiding out in his childhood bedroom, still all fluffy cushions and toy soldiers.
As the Inspector explains, he holds Mr Kau (Eric Tsang Chi-wai) responsible because the woman once worked in his factory and he fired her for participating in a strike for better pay and conditions. Sherry got her fired too when she worked in an upscale fashion store. Johnnie knew her during an unfortunate period as a bar hostess, and Tim as a masseuse. Mrs Kau (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan), who heads up a woman’s charity and publicly espouses tolerance while privately judgmental, once turned her down for familial support seeing as the father of her child was still living. She advises holding him to account and if he won’t pay, forcing his family to take responsibility on his behalf. The irony being that the father is likely her own son and that if this poor woman had rocked up at the Kaus’ with a sad story and an infant in her arms, she would have been met with nothing more than contempt save perhaps some hush money to send her on her way.
The Kaus are merely a series of examples of the various ways the wealthy mistreat the poor, wielding their sense of entitlement like a weapon. Yau and Wong adopt an oddly Brechtian approach in their expressionist production design with the faceless masses identified only through titles – the word “labour” on the workers’ caps, “manager” in the fashion store, “secretary” at the foundation. None of these people are really worthy of names because they will always be “less” while the Kaus are “more” in more ways than one. Actions, however, have consequences. The family console themselves that this is all far too coincidental, that they couldn’t all have known the “same” woman in different guises, but that in many ways is the point – she isn’t one woman but all women, used, abused, and discarded not only by heartless men but by jealous and judgemental members of her own sex too. Better than her than me, they might say, but that’s no way to run a healthy society as the sensitive, slightly damaged Tim seems to see.
Like the Birlings, the Kaus attempt to brush the Inspector’s warning off, thinking it’s all been some elaborate prank that can they laugh about and then forget, but there will be a reckoning even if they attempt to gloss over the various revelations regarding their moral failings. Wong and Yau’s vague gesturing towards the outlandish greed of the hypocritical super wealthy is undercut by the ridiculous New Year slapstick of it all despite the Metropolis-like production design and expressionist trappings, giving in to an excess of its own in an extremely unexpected musical cameo from a martial arts star and the decision to end on a social realist photo of an innocent, pigtailed proletarian woman dressed in red. Nevertheless, strange as it all is the bizarre adaptation of Priestley’s play has its own peculiar charm even if it’s outrageousness rather than moral outrage which takes centre stage.
Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.
Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)