No. 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear (76号恐怖書店之恐懼罐頭, David Chuang & Hung Tzu-peng, 2020)

The first in a potential franchise, David Chuang & Hung Tzu-peng’s chilling anthology 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear (76号恐怖書店之恐懼罐頭, 76-Hào Kǒngbù Shūdiàn zhī Kǒngjù Guàntou) adapts four short stories from the online novel series of the same name. Somewhat interconnected and featuring some of the same cast, the four episodes each present a different kind of horror but all featuring a rather grisly spin from the secrets contained in the grim apartment building of the first instalment to the heartbreaking familial drama of the last as a collection of contemporary lost souls attempt to make sense of life, death, and that which exists somewhere in between. 

Titled “Rent”, the first chapter sees single mother Miss Ho (Esther Huang) leave her young son behind to travel to Taipei hoping to earn money through sex work in order to buy a house in which they can live together. Unfortunately, however, her city existence is even grimmer than expected, inhabiting a rundown apartment block overseen by an extremely creepy landlord (Lai Hao-Zhe) who informs her that the previous tenant, whose belongings are still in the room, abruptly disappeared without trace. “When your son grows up, he’ll be able to protect you” the landlord adds in rather sexist fashion finally getting round to fixing the lock on her door while singing unsettling nursery rhymes about slow rats getting eaten alive. Gradually Miss Ho becomes aware that the building is home to a dark secret connected with the sad fate of one particular family who apparently attempted to resist the urban renewal programme but ironically finds that her own victory lies in a sense with complicity. 

Meanwhile, in Hunger a convict (Joe Chang Shu-Wei) wakes up on the outside after a traumatic episode only to discover that in this version of reality food has been declared illegal. The clerk at a convenience store (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) reacts to his polite request for sustenance with shear horror as if he’d just asked him where he might be able to find the weapons grade plutonium or high grade explosives. A strangely dressed man hanging round outside explains that there’s no more food for another 76 days, but he can supply him with some tins for a small fee. Gesturing at the sign inside the store which is currently counting down to a ghost festival might have clued the man in on where he might be if only he had his thinking cap on, but sure enough he finds himself trapped in a purgatorial hellscape and eventually faced with an ironic confrontation as he resolutely fails to take the opportunity to overcome his baser instincts. 

Shifting into teen supernatural romance, Hide and Seek takes a less grisly though no less cruel turn as a bunch of kids head out on an adventure to celebrate the 18th birthday of Xiaoqi (Eric Lin Hui-Ming). Best friend Shaohua (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) has organised a camping trip to a supposedly haunted former dormitory yet the conflict here is of a more ordinary kind in that both the boys had unwittingly intended to declare their love to the same girl. Nevertheless, as the haunted house adventure proceeds Xiaoqi begins to to wonder who is haunting who, unwittingly forced into a delayed confession of his repressed emotion. 

Something similar befalls Hsin-chieh (Annie Ting-ni), the 30-something heroine of final instalment Taxi who has recently discovered she is pregnant and is subsequently consumed with maternal anxiety that reflects the loss of each of her parents in very different circumstances along with a possible sacrifice of independence and individual identity. Nagged by the aunt who raised her and seemingly cajoled by her perfectly pleasant, vaguely supportive boyfriend Ah-Shu (Wang Wei), Hsin-chieh leans towards an abortion, ending the relationship and getting a flat of her own but soon finds herself haunted by a creepy little girl and a host of other strange goings on until finally forced to face the legacy of abandonment in order to make peace with the traumatic past, ending a painful cycle of guilt and retribution in a bloody confluence of death and rebirth. Filled with surreal and nightmarish imagery, Taxi is at heart all about forgiveness and moving forward, a fitting end these four gloomy tales of supernatural harassment and guilty consciences finding at least a ray of hope in new life unburdened by fear or shame.


No. 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear streams in the US March 27 – 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

More than Blue (比悲傷更悲傷的故事, Gavin Lin, 2018)

More than blue poster“What’s so romantic about eternity?” asks the heroine of Gavin Lin’s remake of the 2009 Korean film More than Blue (比悲伤更悲伤的故事, Bǐ Bēishāng gèng Bēishāng de Gùshì). As the title, which literally translates as “a sadder than sad story”, implies More than Blue is another addition to Taiwanese cinema’s growing roster of melancholy romantic melodramas though this time one which rips a page from the “jun-ai” notebook as its selfless pair of lonely lovers engage in acts of mutual self sacrifice in an attempt to make each other “happy” while remaining quietly miserable as they contemplate a future which may not actually exist.

The hero, nicknamed K (Jasper Liu), lost his father to leukaemia when he was 16. His mother left shortly afterwards on learning that he too had the same disease, unable to cope with the pain of watching her son fade in the same way her husband had. Resigning himself to a life of loneliness, K eventually met “Cream” (Ivy Chen Yi-han), a cheerful and outgoing girl who lost her entire family in a traffic accident. The pair become friends, go to the same university, and eventually move in together but despite a brief fumble and innocent kiss their relationship remains entirely platonic. 10 years later, they’re working for the same record company where Cream is a lyricist and K in promotion. K’s illness is worsening and there’s no sign of a transplant. He has never told Cream about his medical history and now fearing that the end is near, he decides that the best thing to do is to push her towards a nice guy who can look after her after he is gone.

As someone else later points out, K’s decision is a little chauvinistic. Not only has he made it entirely alone, but he’s done so on fairly mercenary terms which imply Cream is not capable of looking after herself rather than solely of hoping to cushion the blow for the time when she must eventually lose him. After all, all relationships end one way or another and it’s impossible to live a life without loss without isolating yourself entirely from the rest of the human race. Then again, that had been K’s original reaction to his mother’s abandonment. Only Cream was able to bring him back into the world again through her goodhearted cheerfulness. K wants to spare her the pain of losing him and of being left behind alone, but perhaps that isn’t his decision to make.

Echoing the title of the movie, K affirms that it’s getting used to loneliness that is “sadder than sad” while also insisting that if anyone could understand the nature of love then no one in the world would suffer because of it. What K has is the wounded nobility of the jun-ai hero who has decided that it is his duty alone to suffer and that by suffering himself he can prevent his loved one from feeling the pain, but of course his emotional aloofness only makes things worse for everyone. Determined to make a brighter future for Cream, he smiles through the tears but neglects to consider that she may prefer a shorter present with him than a long life without. All his pointless romantic engineering amounts to is a silly waste of time during which they might both have been happy if only someone had found the courage for emotional honesty in the face of eventual heartbreak.

Lin wastes no time in letting us know this will be a tragic story through the slight disconnect of a framing sequence which casts the central romance as a lengthy flashback narrated by a peripheral figure to a frustrated music producer and her A-list idol star (played by real life singer A-Lin) who have fallen in love with an unrecorded track, “A Kind of Sorrow”, penned by Cream and performed by K. The song itself references the “darkness” within the pair born of their mutual losses, but also the light that love has brought into their lives. Cream gets into an argument with a poppy idol (who proves more astute than she at first seems) over the use of the world “eternity” within a love song. She doesn’t believe in the idea of eternity because love only lasts until one of the lovers is gone. Eternity, as we later discover, is found in the moment or more precisely in the moment of togetherness which is something both K and Cream have rejected in their escalating attempts at selfless nobility which have made them both individually miserable.

The lesson seems clear – just make the most of the time you have without worrying about the future and live honestly in the moment without regrets. Sadly, it’s a lesson the lovers of More than Blue fail to learn until it’s too late. Melodrama to the max it may be, and the strangely comic tone somewhat out of sync with the eventual destination, but there is real dark heart in More than Blue’s belief in the eternity of love even if also in its inherent tragedy.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Kind of Sorrow as performed by A-Lin