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)

Fagara (花椒之味, Heiward Mak, 2019)

Fagara poster 2“We remember the bad and forget the good” a regretful mother laments, trying to find the right words to connect with her emotionally distant daughter. Heiward Mak’s adaptation of the Amy Cheung novel Fagara (花椒之味, Hjiāo zhī Wèi) melts a subtle One China narrative into a heartwarming meditation on unexpected connections and the modern family as three women from three cultures discover an instant and easy bond, meeting as sisters in adulthood united in a shared sense of hurt and disappointment but learning to find the good among the bad as they process the legacy of their late father and the pain he left behind.

Harried middle-aged travel agent Acacia (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) spends her days fending off junk calls and booking discreet getaways for executives going on “business trips” with their secretaries. So, when she gets a panicked message that her estranged father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) is in hospital she naturally assumes it’s a scam, only it’s not – she needs to get across the Harbour to Victoria Hospital, but in a motif that will be repeated finds it difficult to get a cab willing to take her. By the time she arrives, it’s too late. Her dad has passed away. So little does she know about him that she has to double check what year he was born on his driving licence, passed to her by a young man working at her father’s “family” hotpot restaurant.

On charging his phone, Acacia is shocked to discover that he’s been exchanging text messages with two other young women, apparently his daughters from other relationships in Taiwan and on the Mainland. Thinking they ought to at least know, Acacia invites them to the funeral, which, embarrassingly enough, she has arranged as a Taoist ceremony because she was unaware her father was actually a Buddhist (something apparently known to some of the other guests only they were too polite to say). Meeting for the first time and setting aside their mutual resentments, the three women find an easy connection, uniting to save the restaurant by figuring out Ha Leung’s secret recipe for his famed Fagara soup.

Though Mak largely minimises the obvious political allegory in favour of the human story, it’s impossible to miss the message that these three women are all daughters of the One China, let down by a well meaning but flawed “father” who nevertheless loved them all if imperfectly. Given the current tensions, some might find the implications of that message trite at best, but you can’t argue with the positivities of finding common ground as children failed by distant paternity, or as Acacia puts us, “regardless of the choice he made, he hurt us all”.

Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), the daughter from the Mainland, counters that she was never “hurt” because she was never anyone’s “choice”. Abandoned twice over, Cherry has lived with her grandmother (Wu Yanshu) since her mother remarried in Canada, leaving her behind. A young woman of her times, she’s staked everything on Instagram fame, rejecting the idea of marriage in favour of perpetual independence but unselfishly. The most family oriented of the sisters, she is determined to take care of her grandmother even while she tries to push her away partly in vanity, afraid to let her see the vulnerability of ageing, and partly not wanting to feel as if she’s trapped her granddaughter in a life of servitude to an old woman that will leave her lonely in her own old age.

Acacia meanwhile also remains lukewarm on the idea of “family”, resentful towards her father and insecure in her relationships, breaking up with a meek but supportive fiancée (Andy Lau Tak-wah) because he was only ever bold enough to say he was “OK” with getting married. Striking up a friendship with a cheerful doctor (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) who knew her father, she meditates on her future while trying to sort out her complicated feelings about her father’s “family” hotpot shop.  What she discovers is that her father, while useless at the business of family, had a gift for the family business, turning the hotpot shop into a makeshift community offering second chances to those who couldn’t find them elsewhere.

Uncle Leung, as they called him, was also the only one to encourage Taiwanese daughter Branch (Megan Lai) to follow her dreams when everyone else told her to give up and settle down. Unlike Acacia and Cherry, Branch has a relationship, albeit a strained one, with her mother (Liu Juei-chi) who, as she reveals to Acacia, struggles to connect with her daughter, never quite knowing the right words to say, always striking on the ones sure to work the wound. Heavily coded as gay, Branch is aloof and closed off, literally shutting a devoted young woman out of her life, but begins to brighten on connecting with her sisters, shifting from silent but deeply felt sadness at the funeral to a cheerful solidarity helping to make the restaurant a success. Of course, it turns out that the secret ingredient in the soup was memories of everyone Ha Leung had loved, literally a “family hotpot”. Finally learning to remember the good as well as the bad, Acacia finds the strength to forgive her father, seizing her independence and driving off into a freer future full of possibility but with her sisters, in spirit at least, right alongside her.


Fagara was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fighting for Love (同居蜜友, Joe Ma, 2001)

fighting-for-loveTony Leung Chiu-wai may have just won a best actor prize in Cannes, but that didn’t stop him getting right back on the HK treadmill with the run of the mill rom-com, Fighting for Love (同居蜜友). Reuniting director Jack Ma with Feel 100% star Sammi Cheng, Fighting for Love is the kind of wacky, thrown together romantic comedy that no one really makes any more (not that that’s altogether a bad thing). Still, even if the film is over reliant on its two leads to overcome the overabundance of subplots, it also makes use of their sparky chemistry to keep things moving along.

Deborah (Sammi Cheng) and Tung Choi (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) are both driving to the hospital to visit family members whilst arguing with someone on their cellphones. Deborah is a hardline business woman with a tendency to make her employees cry and a total refusal to give into anyone else’s demands whereas Tung Choi is the third generation manager of successful family noodle restaurant. When Deborah’s reckless driving knocks off Tung Choi’s wing mirror, he chases her and she runs away until they have a physical altercation in the hospital carpark. The police turn up and decide they’re both as bad as each other but eventually Tung Choi convinces Deborah to come to a meeting in a karaoke bar at which they both get roaring drunk and end up in a one night stand.

An unexpected outcome, to be sure. Tung Choi already has a girlfriend, and she’s a well known TV personality to boot. Deborah’s major relationship has been her career, but after some work place shenanigans she’s fired and later finds herself sort of homeless after losing her father’s dog. Running into Tung choi again at the hospital where she decides to try sleeping in her sister’s room, the pair meet in a more civilised manner leading him to offer her the sofa in his family’s home. His girlfriend, Mindy (Niki Chow), is overseas, but can Tung Choi and Deborah really find love before she gets back?

Fighting for Love works best when it focuses on Tung Choi and Deborah as they fight and fall in love reluctantly and almost by accident. Deborah is portrayed as an overly aggressive, grumpy woman with a tendency to scare people away though she softens and becomes less deliberately abrasive throughout her courtship with Tung Choi where as Tung Choi is portrayed as a weak willed man, bossed around by his famous girlfriend and avoiding making any decisions of his own but starts to find his voice when Deborah prompts him to make an active choice. Tony Leung and Sammi Cheng have great chemistry fuelling the central dynamic and keeping the film afloat despite its otherwise non-sensical plot.

Subplots include the ongoing problems at Deborah’s workplace where her colleagues alternate between loathing and pity without much in the way of explanation, culminating in an episode where Deborah offers to sell her car and cash in her savings to pay another woman’s team members after the company lets them down. This gets her invited to the company’s anniversary party despite no longer being an employee where she also has an improbable onstage showdown with Mindy. Further bonding with Tung Choi by getting herself a job at his noodle restaurant, Deborah accidentally destroys his secret recipe soup, allowing them more time to work together to find a solution. While all of this is going on, Deborah also has to contend with Tung Choi’s crazy extended family who originally start off supporting Mindy but then later seem on Deborah’s side. Deborah’s own family fade from the narrative fairly quickly as her work takes precedence over her family life.

Like many classic Hong Kong rom-coms, nothing really makes much sense in Fighting for Love. The situations become increasingly contrived as Deborah and Tung Choi advance and retreat in terms of their growing romance, and the additional subplots including the unconvincingly bland, airhead TV star Mindy (why is she so dead set on marrying the manager of a noodle shop she doesn’t really love when she’s such a high flying celebrity?) only detract from rather than add to the ongoing narrative. Nevertheless, Tony Leung and Sammi Cheng have great chemistry and make the most of their quick fire, screwball style scenes which make the central romance, if not the film as a whole, worth spending time with.


Original trailer (no subtitles)