The Sleep Curse (失眠, Herman Yau, 2017)

sleep curse posterInsomnia 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!)

Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語, Ann Hui, 1999)

ordinary heroes posterThroughout her long career, Ann Hui has become adept at making subtle political points through addressing the struggles of the recent past. Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語) was released in 1999, just two years after the handover which signalled the end of British colonial rule. The Chinese title of the film is taken from a Teresa Teng song heard on a car radio and means “thousands of words, tens of thousands of languages” – a sentiment which could apply to the work of the activists as they work tirelessly to little effect, but the English title perhaps hints more closely at the film’s essential purpose as a tribute and pean to these ordinary people who dared to stand up to authority to fight for what they thought was right.

After a brief prologue from the street performer (Mok Chiu-yu) – inspired by the real life figure Ng Chun Yin, who will become the Brechtian narrator of the ongoing drama, Hui cuts to a title card reading “to forget”, only to open with the words “I remember”. The heroine has, however, forgotten her former life for reasons of which we aren’t yet sure. Sow (Loletta Lee) is a young woman and former activist being cared for by her friend, Tung (Lee Kang-sheng) who has been nursing a longterm crush on her ever since she pickpocketed him when he was in high school. Sow, however, had been involved with an activist, Yau (Tse Kwan-ho), who later married someone else, but remains committed to the cause, as hopeless as it might seem.

The cause is that of the Yau Ma Tei boat people. A historic community of former fisherman, the Yau Ma Tei boat people live off the shore of Hong Kong in what was constructed as a typhoon shelter after a fierce storm destroyed almost an entire fleet in 1915. During the 1950s, the community moved away from fishing and became a a kind of tourist spot and centre for petty crime. With their own distinctive accents, clothing, and isolated way of life the boat people were not always welcome on land but also faced an additional problem in that many of their wives were refugees from the mainland and technically illegal migrants forbidden from setting foot on Hong Kong proper. Though the government instituted an amnesty for the children of boat people, it took advantage of the women who came forward to get official birth certificates, deporting them back to mainland China and separating them from their families.

The boat people find few friends, but an Italian Catholic priest and, incongruously enough, committed Maoist, Father Kam (Anthony Wong) becomes a staunch defender, living with the boat people and providing education for the children as well as ministering to his flock. Yau and Kam work together to advance the cause of the boat people while Sow assists Yau and Tung follows Sow whilst also becoming close to Kam and influenced by his peculiar ideology. Kam, often to be found strumming his guitar and singing the Internationale, becomes a figurehead for the movement, even committing to a hunger strike in an attempt to get the authorities’ attention.

Structuring her tale in a non-linear fashion, Hui weaves the complex narrative of political descent in ‘70s Hong Kong, splitting her focus between the single issue activism of Yau and Kam and the wider leftist movement as recounted in the street theatre of Ng Chun Yin. Ng, a longterm leftist activist, was the founder of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Marxist League who later went to China to deliver a true Marxist, democratic revolution but ended up betraying his cause and being kicked out of his own movement. Such obviously left-wing agitation was, perhaps, difficult in the early 70s when news of the cultural revolution had discredited Chinese communism, especially as many residents of Hong Kong had arrived as refugees from the oppressive regime, but there are those who continue to believe in and fight for the values that they believe should be present North of the border.

Sadly these hopes are crushed by the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 after which it was impossible to argue for the moral superiority of the Chinese state over the colonial government. The bursting of a political bubble runs in parallel with the sad love story of Sow and Tung who find themselves at odds with each other, never quite in the same temporal space. Hui signals the closing coda with another title card, this time reading “to not forget”, as Sow and Tung are forced to acknowledge their painful pasts as they look forward to an uncertain future. Forgetting and not forgetting become the central themes as the boat people plead for recognition, while there seems to be an active choice in play to decide to forget these “ordinary heroes” and the various sacrifices they made in the name of social justice as Hong Kong begins to look forward to its own uncertain future as one master is swapped for another and the silent majority sit idly by, opting for the consumerist revolution over the human one. Ng, in his opening statement, talks about heroes with unfulfilled missions. Tung and Sow find themselves at a new dawn with their illusions shattered, filled with thousands of words and nothing at all to say. 


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese, no subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s Thousands of Words

The Mad Monk (濟公, Johnnie To, 1993)

mad monk poster“The Mad Monk” sounds like a great name for a creepy ghost, emerging robed and chanting from the shadows to make you fear for your mortal soul. Sadly, The Mad Monk (濟公, Jì Gōng) features only one “ghost”, but it might just be the cutest in cinema history. The second of Johnnie To’s Shaw Brothers collaborations with comedy star Stephen Chow is another wisecracking romp in which Chow revels in his smart alec superiority, settling bets made in heaven and eventually vowing to spread peace and love across the whole world.

Dragon Fighter Lo Han (Stephen Chow) has a low opinion of his fellow celestial beings. He thinks they ought to be taking more of an interest rather than blindly following the rules. Consequently, Lo Has been making all kinds of mischief and the other gods are very annoyed. They’ve appealed to their high arbitrator – the goddess of mercy (Anita Mui). Wisecraking Lo Han first tries to fob the gods off by sending his friend, Tiger Fighter (Ng Man-tat), instead but can’t resist offering a few more words of smugness in his own defence. Nevertheless, the goddess sees something in Lo Han’s argument and, rather than condemn him to a life as an animal, sets him a challenge – go to Earth and change the fates of three people whose destinies are set to remain the same for the next nine lives. Lo Han agrees and the “Mad Monk” is born.

Like Justice, My Foot, Mad Monk is an opportunity for Chow to show off his verbal dexterity with occasional forays into martial arts. Sadly much of the fast and furious dialogue does not translate though Chow’s spirited performance helps to breathe life into the comedy. Slightly less forgivably, To and Chow repeat jokes from the earlier film including one odd, very much of its time sequence in which Chow walks in on two gay men enjoying a banana in the privacy of their own room. Other attempts at long running jokes include Tiger’s metamorphosis into a giant baby which soon becomes tiring but is eventually forgotten.

Lo Han’s mission is to “reform” a prostitute (Maggie Cheung) who enjoys her work too much, a beggar (Anthony Wong ) with social anxiety and low self esteem, and a stone hearted villain (Kirk Wong) intent on inflicting as much evil as possible on the Mad Monk and his cohorts. Whilst living as a mortal, Lo Han is not allowed to use any of his celestial magic, but is given a magic fan which can be used three times a day. The goddess of mercy instructs Lo Han that he is to use his sincerity to convert these dyed in the wool sinners, which he does – descending to Earth in an oddly Christlike fashion, determined to save these lost souls even if he’s doing it for the pleasure of winning a bet more than an altruistic desire to help “troubled” people back onto what he sees as “the right path”.

Like many Shaw Brothers comedies, Mad Monk’s narrative is its least important element. The nonsensical plot races from one random incident to another, glued together with over the top slapstick and the occasional martial arts showdown. By the end, Lo Han has wound up in a monster movie as he tries to stop a giant marauding spirit from destroying the city even though he is running out of time for his personal quest and currently has other pressing concerns. Lo Han’s “sincere” attempts to manipulate his targets into changing their ways may seem as if they fail, but even if the effects will be felt in the next life rather than this one, Lo Han has made difference in the mortal world, albeit not quite the one he expected. Seemingly out of nowhere, Lo Han’s mission seems to have changed him too as he begins extolling the virtues of compassion and insisting on building another paradise to spread peace and love through the world. Like the film itself, it’s a noble cause but one that sadly never hits its mark.


Celestial Pictures trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Cook up a Storm (决战食神, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2017)

Raymond Yip Wai-man’s Cook up a Storm (决战食神, Juézhàn Shíshén) was scheduled to open at Chinese New Year but eventually found itself delayed and awkwardly repositioned as a Valentine’s Day date movie. Something of a rarity, there is no real romance in Cook up a Storm though it may inspire a post-movie visit to the nearest Chinese restaurant with its deeply felt tribute to classic Chinese cuisine and the raucous social gathering that often goes with it. Yip does his best to throw in as many themes as possible from the familiar tradition vs modernity to fathers and sons and the undue influence to China’s new ruling class who possess extreme wealth but (apparently) no taste. Most of these get somewhat lost in the meandering script which eventually falls into a conventional tournament narrative as two very different chefs face off in the kitchen before realising they have more in common than not.

Laidback young man Sky (Nicholas Tse) has inherited the traditional and extremely popular Seven restaurant in a tiny alleyway as yet untouched by the rest of the city’s lurch towards modernisation but all that is set to change when a Michelin starred Korean/Chinese chef, Paul Ahn (Jung Yong-hwa), is given the opportunity to open a high class restaurant right across the street. Sky is not particularly worried as he knows they aren’t chasing the same clientele but Ahn continues to muscle in on his business from outbidding him at the fish market to blocking the entrance to Seven’s restaurant with fancy customer cars.

Seven and Ahn’s restaurant Stella eventually find themselves rivals in a TV cooking competition where Ahn’s modern take prizing innovation and elaborate presentation is directly contrasted with Sky’s traditional skills but there are other conflicts lurking in the background as Ahn’s corporate backers fuss about the marketing and Sky obsesses over proving himself to his estranged father who is currently the “god of cooking” and a world champion celebrity chef.

Half Korean Ahn honed his skills abroad cooking for European royalty and has never quite “got” Chinese cuisine which he finds stagnant, turned off by its fierce traditionalism. Street cook Sky does not care for Ahn’s “tricks” which distract from the simple purity of the food. Yip is pulled between the two extremes, painting the tiny alleyway as unrealistic for trying to stave off the march of time yet seing something to respect in their fierce defence of their community and way of life which is constantly under threat. Ahn, though originally cold and driven, is not quite the villain he seems as he quite clearly recognises a fellow craftsman in Sky and is willing to extend at least a professional courtesy to him even if he doesn’t immediately leap to his defence. After a number of setbacks and reversals, the two men patch up their differences by coming together to fight a common enemy which represents both future and past in the twin pronged assault of the heartless developers and Sky’s soulless father.

Corporate greed is the film’s central villain as these super rich businessmen continue to ride roughshod over the little guy from refusing to queue for a table to threatening to burn the whole place to the ground if they don’t get their way. Ahn, having accepted their offer to run “his own” restaurant quickly discovers that he is just another short order talent fit to be cast aside when another hotshot rears their head. Caring only for money and status, the restaurant owners have no love for food which, in the film’s terms, is the ultimate betrayal.

Betrayed is the way Sky feels towards his long absent father who skipped town after telling him he had no feeling for cookery leaving him with lingering feelings of resentment and inadequacy. Sky is determined to prove his father’s life philosophy wrong by demonstrating that it is possible to be both successful and a good person. Sadly, only one of these is destined to work out for him (Yip’s vision of the new China is not altogether charitable) but then Sky’s idea of “success” is very different to his father’s and to that of the development wave currently washing over his neighbourhood.

In keeping with the New Year theme food is the main focus and Yip does his best to give the simple art of cooking all of the shine it truly deserves piling visual tricks on top of well choreographed action sequences more akin to a martial arts film than your usual food fiesta. The narrative may be a familiar one, two cooks enter everyone leaves full, but then that’s more or less what is expected from a New Year movie. Inconsequential and somewhat throwaway, Cook up a Storm still manages to pack in enough gentle comedy and tributes to the power of community as found family to make up for its otherwise insubstantial nature.


HK trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)