My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (殺手蝴蝶夢, Patrick Tam Kar-Ming, 1989)

“Now no one owes anything to anyone” a petty gangster ironically states on completing an errand for a friend in Patrick Tam’s heroic bloodshed off-shoot My Heart is that Eternal Rose (殺手蝴蝶夢). As the name perhaps implies, Tam’s film is less brotherhood than tragic romance as the fatalism of the noirish gangster world ruled by debt if not by honour conspires against love, not only romantic but filial and brotherly, in its infinite web of violence and futility.

Pinching a classic noir narrative, the picture opens in a cheerful waterside tavern run by former gangster Uncle Cheung (Kwan Hoi-Shan) where carefree gambler Rick (Kenny Bee) is in love with the old man’s daughter Lap (Joey Wong Cho-Yee) who works behind the bar. Uncle Cheung thinks he’s escaped the triad world, but the past is not done with him. Approached by local tough guy Law (Gam Lui), Uncle Cheung is made an offer he can’t refuse to help smuggle Law’s son (Cheung Tat-ming) to Hong Kong from the mainland. He asks Rick to pitch in as the driver and recruits corrupt cop Tang (Ng Man-tat) to help him get past the checkpoints. But Law’s kid is chatterbox, excited to be in Hong Kong and eagerly boring everyone with his future plans to become a famous singer. Unwisely he drops his father’s name and rouses Tang’s interest. Tang makes the gang pull off at a rest stop so he can strong arm Uncle Cheung into ringing Law to up his pay, but the loudmouth kid jumps the gun, literally, and gets himself killed. Tang turns on Rick and Uncle Cheung to clear up loose ends but Rick kills him, escaping with Uncle Cheung and leaving the old lady at the rest stop to clean up the mess. Left with no choice but to flee, the trio arrange passage to the Philippines but Uncle Cheung is snatched by Law before they can leave. Lap is forced to make a deal with rival kingpin Godfather Shen (Michael Chan Wai-man) to save her dad, putting Rick on the boat with a promise to meet him later but knowing that she will likely never escape Shen’s grasp. 

Six years pass, during which Lap becomes Shen’s right-hand woman entertaining wealthy Japanese businessmen in his swanky club as a singer and hostess. Consumed by guilt and remorse in knowing his daughter continues to pay the price for his mistake, Uncle Cheung has become a drunken liability while Lap is lost in romantic melancholy, mooning over the ruined love of her youth and dreaming that some day Rick may return and take her away from all this. Meanwhile, innocent rookie (confusingly also named) Cheung (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) has fallen in love with her, captivated by her sadness and the futility of her life with Shen. Of course, Rick, having become a hit man, eventually returns leading to a confrontation not just with Shen but with the triad world itself. 

In the gangster universe, everyone owes something to someone. Debt is a kind of currency, and every bargain accrues its particular kind of interest. Lap is forced to sacrifice herself to save the men she loves by trading the only currency she has, her body, knowing that in doing so she destroys the possibility of a happy romantic future with Rick in order to keep him safe. Six years later she thinks she’s paid her debt to Shen, he has plenty of other women what difference can keeping her captive make? But that’s not the way the gangster world works. Shen merely gifts her to the psychotic underling who propositioned her on their first meeting and moments earlier had tried to betray his boss by raping her. Only Cheung, pure hearted and naive, is uncorrupted by the venal cruelty of the triad world, consumed by a truly selfless love that sees him determined to help Lap escape and save her future with Rick. 

This selfless love, however, eventually creates another debt in the moral dilemma faced by the lovers who know that if they escape alone they leave Cheung at the mercy of Shen while to return spells certain death. Co-shot by Christopher Doyle, Tam’s moral universe is lit by the red-tinted glow of the neo-noir, a dizzying yet melancholy world of violence and futility in which freeze frames and ethereal dissolves hint at the transient meaninglessness of the triad life where love and death go hand in hand while betrayal is an ever present companion. Only those sufficiently uncorrupted by the moral duplicities of an increasingly bankrupt existence are permitted to survive, but even so emerge beaten, wounded, and pale with loss literally at sea perpetual exiles without home or harbour.


Original trailer (Dialogue free, contains major spoilers)

Moon Warriors (戰神傳說, Sammo Hung, 1992)

“In fact, some stories are true. Especially the heartbreaking ones” according to a melancholy fisherman in Sammo Hung’s tragic wuxia romance, Moon Warriors (戰神傳說). Arriving in the middle of a fantasy martial arts boom, Moon Warriors boasts some of the biggest stars of the day in a beautifully composed tale of intrigue and derring-do as well as featuring an A-list creative team with such high profile talent as Mabel Cheung, Alex Law, Ching Siu-Tung, and Corey Yuen also involved in the production. 

Somewhere in feudal China, 13th Prince Shih-san (Kenny Bee) is on the run after being usurped by his evil brother, the predictably named 14th Prince (Kelvin Wong Siu) who burnt down his castle and has been following him throughout the land razing villages wherever he goes. Accompanied by trusty bodyguard Merlin (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) who is silently in love with him, Shih-san is desperate to get in touch with the Lord of Langling (Chang Yu), also the father of his betrothed princess Moony (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), in the hope of uniting their forces to retake the country together. Meanwhile, goodhearted yet eccentric fisherman Philip (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) is doing a spot of hunting in a bamboo grove during which he notices Shih-san and the others wading into a trap and leaps to the rescue, helping to despatch the black-clad assassins. As Shih-san is badly injured, he takes them back to his cheerfully idyllic village, serves them the local delicacy of spicy shark fin soup, and generally befriends them before 14th Prince’s goons track them all down again at which point he takes them to his secret hideout which turns out to be an ancient temple dedicated to Shih-san’s emperor ancestors. 

We find out just how evil 14th Prince is when he gets his minions to kill all of Moony’s ladies-in-waiting and dress up in their clothes to mount a sneak attack on the Langling estate while holding on to the pretty kites Moony was flying before the gang arrived. Though petulantly flying kites seems like quite a childish activity for a princess about to be married off, Moony more than holds her own in the fight even if finding it difficult to deal with having killed someone for the first time. Sent to protect her, Philip is less than sympathetic, but after a few arguments, a near death experience, and some magic glitter, the pair begin to fall in love, which is a problem because Moony is betrothed to Shih-san. 

What develops is a complicated love square in which Merlin pines for Shih-san who seems more interested in Philip, while Philip repeatedly tries to leave the group because of his conflicted loyalties and a feeling of inferiority as a peasant suddenly mixed up in imperial intrigue and forbidden romance. Moony tries to give him her half of a precious jade talisman which plays beautiful music, but her melancholy suggestion that it will sound better with his flute than with the other half which is held by Shih-san flies right over his head. Shih-san, meanwhile, who was spying on them talking, suddenly decides to give him his half too, leaving Philip holding the whole thing. Merlin, as it turns out, has a series of interior conflicts of her own that leave her resentful of just about everyone except Shih-san. 

Eventually, however, nowhere is safe from the destructive effects of political instability and Philip’s fishing village is soon a target for the vicious 14th Prince, ensuring he enters the fight with the help of his improbable best friend, a killer whale named “Sea-Wayne”. Before the romantic dilemmas can be resolved, the courtly intrigue collapses in on itself, fostering an accidental revolution in the literal implosion of an old order, suddenly becoming dust as in some long forgotten prophecy. In a strange moment of flirtatious smalltalk, Philip had remarked that legend has it the flowers in these fields are only so beautiful because they grow on top of bodies buried far below, something he later discovers to be more than just a fanciful story. 

There might be something in the tragic tale of two branches of elites destroying each other in order to take control of a disputed territory while the ordinary man is left behind alone to reflect on the fall of empires, but perhaps that’s a reading too far in a melancholy wuxia of 1992 and its unexpectedly gloomy ending in which true feelings are spoken only when all hope is lost. Nevertheless, with all of its high octane fight scenes, painful stories of romance frustrated by the oppressions of feudalism, and surreal killer whale action, Moon Warriors is a strangely poetic affair as doomed love meets its end in political strife.


Trailer (no subtitles)

The Last Affair (花城, Tony Au Ting-Ping, 1983)

“Why choose Paris?” a mysterious voice inquires. “Because it’s Paris” comes the slightly depressed reply. In terms of the movies, the City of Light has an undeniably romantic reputation, but those who go there are often drawn more towards the darkness. Art director Tony Au Ting-ping’s distinctly European directorial debut The Last Affair (花城) helped to launch the film careers of then TV stars Chow Yun-fat and Carol Cheng Yu-ling and finds a lonely young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage travelling to Paris alone for a friend’s wedding only to discover that you cannot escape yourself through romantic delusion. 

The dejected Ha-ching (Carol Cheng Yu-ling) once eagerly studied French after school with her best friend Bing (Pat Ha Man-lik) in the hope of travelling through Europe but married young and never got the opportunity while Bing moved to Paris and is about to marry a Vietnamese man who owns a family-run restaurant. Looking back at an old photo of the pair of them together, she laments that she was once young and full of dreams but is now middle-aged and filled with disappointment. Bing is surprised that Ha-ching has come to Paris on her own, but she deftly changes the subject, apparently unwilling to talk about her husband, Wai-ming seemingly a representative of an empty elitism of the newly prosperous society. Later she writes him a letter she doesn’t have the courage to send informing him that her trip to Paris has convinced her that she never loved him and she doesn’t see how their present relationship could continue. 

In any case, Wai-ming is supposed to arrive just before the wedding but perhaps only because he’s also going to a big architecture conference in Lyon. When he eventually turns up, he’s extremely rude to Bing and her fiancé who is obviously irritated but making a tremendous effort to be polite while Wai-ming makes a fuss about the quality of the hotel, snapping at Ha-ching that she should have booked the Georges V because it’s not as if they don’t have the money while endlessly droning on about himself. In short, it’s not difficult to see why Ha-ching is unhappy. 

Before he arrives, however, she starts to see a different future fuelled by ideas of European romance after locking eyes with handsome violinist Kwon-ping (Chow Yun-fat) busking in the subway. Awkwardly, Kwong-Ping turns out to be a member of Bing’s circle of friends, and the pair quickly hit it off, beginning a passionate affair. A phone call to his apartment from a French woman, however, has Ha-ching feeling uncertain. She has fallen in love with Kwon-ping and is intending to throw her life away for him, but he likes to have a good time in the bohemian bars of the city whereas she’d rather stay in cooking Chinese food to make them both feel more at home. Artists and dreamers all, the people at the bar make her uneasy. She’s always wanted to know how to find true happiness and has a feeling most of those at the bar are the same, never quite finding it and left with a terrible sense of incompleteness. In truth, she’s a little more conventional than she’d perhaps assumed.

That sense of existential displacement is something that, on the surface of things at least, doesn’t seem to bother Kwon-Ping, but then again perhaps explains the momentary monogamy of his womanising in which he loves them when he’s with them but forgets them when he’s not. For many, Paris seems to be the city of broken dreams. Melancholy art student Siu-tong is forced to make ends meet painting “traditional” furniture designs to European tastes while trying to make it as an artist. Bing’s fiancé is casually dismissive of those who paint for money by the river, but Siu-tong is left with no other choice, dismissed by the furniture maker and finding that all of the talk of his getting a solo show was just that. His girlfriend went back to the Philippines to study, worried he’d forget her, while he’s too ashamed to tell her that he’s giving up and going back to Hong Kong to be an art teacher. 

Bing, meanwhile, has troubles of her own, preparing to get married but perhaps getting cold feet in settling while still hung up on old love. She can’t forgive Kwon-Ping for his womanising ways, but is too close to the matter to be able to talk to Ha-ching even if she can tell that there’s something not right with her old friend. Unable to accept that Kwon-Ping is not a one woman sort of man, Ha-ching begins to go quietly out of her mind, falling out with Bing while resentful of her husband and certain she does not want to return with him to her old life in Hong Kong. She meets a Canadian-Chinese man travelling Europe alone and making ends meet through selling handicrafts along the way, but ultimately reflects that solo travelling is not the path to happiness at least not for her and is therefore faced with the impossibility of witnessing the implosion of her romantic delusion. Framed in the grandiose tones of avant-garde opera, Ha-ching’s existential despair takes a much darker turn than might originally be expected, but is perhaps in keeping with Au’s overtly European arthouse aesthetics. 


Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (追龍II:賊王, Wong Jing & Jason Kwan, 2019)

In the grandest tradition of Hong Kong “sequels”, Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (追龍II:賊王) has almost no connection to 2017’s Chasing the Dragon which starred Donnie Yen and Andy Lau as famed ‘70s gangster Crippled Ho and bent copper Lee Rock respectively. It is however part of a planned trilogy of films directed by Wong Jing and Jason Kwan “celebrating” legendary Hong Kong “heroes”. Abandoning the grand historical sweep of the first film, Wild Wild Bunch situates itself firmly in 1996 on the eve of the handover when, it claims, Hong Kong was close to a lawless state seeing as the colonial British authorities were already in retreat and therefore largely disinterested in governing. 

It’s this laxity, coupled with an age of excess, which has enabled the rise of real life kidnapping kingpin Cheung Tze-keung (Tony Leung Ka-fai) also known as Big Spender and here known as Logan Long. Logan makes his money by ransoming the richest figures not only in Hong Kong but the wealthier stretches of the Sinosphere and the Mainland cops are after him because they see him as an inconvenience from old Hong Kong they’d rather not inherit. Accordingly, they enlist veteran Hong Kong policemen, Inspector Li (Simon Yam Tat-wah) and bomb disposals expert He Sky (Louis Koo Tin-lok), to help them because they’ve heard that Logan is in need of a new explosives guy after the last one blew himself up. Sky is supposed to go deep undercover in Logan’s gang to save his next victim and take him down in the process. 

Though inspired by the real life legend, Sky’s infiltration is obviously fiction and in actuality Cheung Tze-keung was caught before his kidnapping of Macau gambling magnate Stanley Ho, here Standford He (Michael Wong Man-tak), could take place though setting the tale in the former Portuguese colony famous for its casinos (illegal in Mainland China) adds another meta level of colonial critique in situating itself firmly in the world of wealthy elites corrupted by their fabulous wealth. Real life gangster Cheung was apparently a well-liked figure, branding himself as a loveable rogue and less altruistic Robin Hood who liked to spread his wealth around by giving out lavish gifts seemingly at random though also enjoying living the high life himself. Logan is much the same, holing up at his mansion safe house in the rolling hills with his criminal “family”, declaring himself a fair man. If you cross him he’ll be sure to investigate fully but if he finds you betrayed him his revenge will be merciless. He cares deeply about his guys but also, perhaps unwittingly, terrorises them to the extent that they all pretend to enjoy eating durian fruit to please him, while reacting to tragedy with old-fashioned gangster ethics in trading his own girlfriend and a significant amount of cash to a gang member whose pregnant wife ended up dead because of his cowardly brother Farrell (Sherman Ye Xiangming) who is frankly a walking liability. 

Sky too is a family man, constantly worrying about his elderly mother and giving instructions to Li as to how to look after her if anything goes wrong and he doesn’t make it back from Macau. Sky’s mum is also quite concerned that her son has never married, and there is something quite homely in the strangely deep friendship between Li and Sky which has its unavoidably homoerotic context in Li’s cheerfully intimate banter in which it often seems he’s about to kiss his brother-in-arms which might not go down so well with the Mainland censors board who are otherwise so obviously being courted with the heroic presentation of the PRC police force only too eager to clear up the mess the British left behind. 

Then again, Cheung Tze-keung’s case was notable in that is presented an early constitutional conflict to the One Country Two Systems principle seeing as he was a Hong Konger tried (and sentenced to death) on the Mainland for crimes committed outside its jurisdiction, something which had additional resonance in the climate of summer 2019 in which vast proportions of the city came out to protest the hated Extradition Bill. In any case, Wild Wild Bunch owes more to classic ‘90s Hollywood actioners than it perhaps does to local cinema with its frequent bomb disposal set pieces and final climactic car chase which nevertheless literally pushes Logan over the line and into the arms of the PRC, the flamboyant gangster taking a bow as he tears up his ill gotten gains with a rueful grin in acknowledging his loss to a superior power. 


US release trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Unleashed (地下拳, Kwok Ka-Hei & Ambrose Kwok Yat-Choi, 2020)

Victory lies in letting go in Kwok Ka-Hei & Ambrose Kwok Yat-Choi’s macho boxing drama Unleashed (地下拳). A familiar tale of a gym under threat, a master vulnerable, and a young man indignant, Unleashed isn’t claiming to be original but eventually wanders in an unexpected direction with the entrance of a young aspiring actress who finds herself at the mercy of a predatory industry, taking refuge in the ring as she undergoes research for an upcoming role as a top assassin. 

Fok Kit (Sun Zhen-Feng), the hero, is a champ of the underground boxing circuit living with his master Tak-bo (Ken Lo Wai-Kwong) at a struggling gym. When their landlord, Mr. Ho (Mok Wai-Man), comes calling, Tak-bo assumes he’s putting up the rent but the reality is even worse. Ho wants to sell the property after receiving an offer too good refuse, but he is willing to sell it to Tak-bo first if he can come up with the money. While the bank agree to loan him almost enough, Tak-bo is running a little short when he’s approached by an old pupil, Lok (Sam Lee Chan-Sam), with an offer of his own. He wants Fok Kit to face off against his guy Surat (Zheng Zi-Ping), a Thai boxer with a fearsome reputation. Tak-bo is reluctant, fearing for Fok Kit’s safety after hearing rumours that Surat killed a man in the ring, while it also turns out that there may be bad blood between himself and Lok who has not long got out of prison after being convicted of drug smuggling. Meanwhile, Fok Kit has taken on a new pupil, Effy (Venus Wong Man-Yik), who wants to join the gym to learn all the boxing she needs to know to convince in her role as an assassin in an upcoming movie. 

Left with no other options, Tak-bo gives in and lets Fok Kit fight Surat, but it goes just as badly as it could possibly go and not only does he lose but is rendered paralysed. In true boxing movie fashion, Fok Kit shifts from petulant unwillingness to undergo a risky operation that might allow him to walk again, to a full recovery and the desire for a rematch, but his scars are as much psychological as physical leaving him afraid to fight, seeing Surat’s smug grin in every challenger that swings a punch. He freezes, knocked out by even the weakest of opponents. Effy, meanwhile, is on an emotional rollercoaster of her own. The sleazy director she’s working with takes against her when she rejects his inappropriate advances, having all her scenes reshot and even using them as an excuse to use physical violence against her under the pretext of movie making. He eventually gets his comeuppance when a video of his behaviour is leaked and goes viral, but his drunken act of revenge, from which Fok Kit is unable to protect her because of his unaddressed trauma, may yet cost Effy her big break in leaving her with a prominent facial scar. 

As Tak-bo keeps telling him, however, the most important tool in boxing is not physical strength but passion, just as a good actor needs heart and dedication. “Clench your first too tight you may lose everything” Tak-bo insists gently guiding Fok Kit towards the power of letting go while he himself admits he’s been holding on to an insecurity that kept him out of the ring. A fear of losing, rather than the convenient excuse of his leg injury, had him give up the fight only now deciding that he’s tired of hiding from failure. If they want to save the boxing gym, they’ll have to face their respective fears in the form of the irredeemable big bad that is Surat, a total vacuum of humanity and unstoppable killing machine. The greedy and soulless are eventually made to pay a heavy price for their betrayal of the craft, while those who have true passion eventually prosper. Never quite managing to marry its twin plot strands with Effy’s desire to fight back against a sexist and exploitative industry taking a backseat to Fok Kit’s manly drama as he struggles to regain his confidence by beating his trauma in the ring, Unleashed moves swiftly towards it wholly expected finale but consistently lands its blows even in its willing conventionality.


Unleashed streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © 2020 Orchid Tree Media

Beyond the Dream (幻愛, Kiwi Chow Kwun-Wai, 2019)

Two troubled souls battle illusionary love in Kiwi Chow Kwun-Wai’s existential romance, Beyond the Dream (幻愛). What is love when divorced from fantasy, and once you know do you have the courage face it? That’s a question asked by each of the mirrored protagonists who’ve convinced themselves they are unworthy of love while struggling to extricate themselves from past trauma and present insecurity as they find the sands of reality constantly shifting beneath their feet. 

Chow opens with a street scene, the evening crowds gently parting to find a woman in distress, Ling (Wong Lam), who eventually begins to take off all her clothes. While passersby stare and film her public breakdown, a man, Lok (Terrance Lau Chun-Him), who recognises her from a support group for sufferers of schizophrenia, comes to her rescue as does a mysterious woman who wraps her cardigan around her giving her both modesty and warmth. Helping Ling into an ambulance, Lok ends up with the mystery woman’s cardigan somehow captivated by her, touched by the way she came to Ling’s rescue when everyone else was intent on ridicule. Sometime later he is surprised to realise that the woman lives on the floor above him on his estate. Returning her cardigan he discovers her name is Yanyan (Cecilia Choi Si-Wan) and she lives with her violent drunk of a father (Ng Kam-Chuen). The pair become a couple and Lok starts to wonder if he should tell her about his struggles with mental health only for his symptoms to begin resurfacing. Much to his horror he realises that his relationship with Yanyan is nothing but a vivid fantasy, a figment of his illness which exists only his mind. 

Yet even fantasy is built on a grain of truth as Lok later discovers when “Yanyan” turns up at one of his support group sessions only she’s a post-grad psychology student by the name of Yip Nam who is looking for volunteers to participate in her research into erotomania in those diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nam hopes to find out if lack of love is a causal factor in the condition through the stories of those who become consumed by romantic delusion. Unfortunately, her project is rejected by her supervisor, Dr. Fung (Nina Paw Hee-Ching), on the grounds that she has no viable subjects. Lok would seem to be the ideal patient, were it not for the awkward fact of which Nam is still unaware that she herself is the subject of his fixation, the “real” woman who came to Ling’s rescue all those months ago. 

“Relationships are always your problem” Nam is warned, herself carrying the burden of a traumatic past which, according to her mentor Fung, has also convinced her that she doesn’t deserve love, mirroring Lok’s fantasy of Yanyan and her imprisonment at the hands of the abusive father who eventually keeps them apart. In her role as his therapist, she counsels him to “find your true love in reality”, interpreting his recurring dream as a metaphor for his desire to lose himself in the comforting fantasy of his illusionary love for Yanyan rather than take the risks concurrent with seeking happiness in the “real” world. But she herself is also seeking wilful oblivion in other kinds of illusionary romantic distraction pursued perhaps as a form of self harm or at least a means of blaming herself for something for which she has no need to apologise. 

For Lok, meanwhile, romance is still more uncertain, his sense of reality permanently impaired as he finds himself pulled between his idealised love for Yanyan and the problematic relationship with Nam while convinced that no one could ever love him because of his mental illness. “No matter who you really are, you’ll all leave me in the end” he sadly affirms, later advising Nam that “it’s time we wake up from our dreams” ironically advocating for a return to “reality” while simultaneously running from it. Continually divided in Chow’s elegant composition, forever gazing through mirrors and seeing only the reflection of unfulfilled desire, the lovers struggle to overcome their psychological barriers to move beyond the dream of love into something more concrete if perhaps no less illusionary, chasing self-acceptance in the eyes of another as they surrender to romantic destiny as its own kind of “reality”. 


Beyond the Dream screens at Chicago’s Davis Drive-in on Oct. 10 as the closing night of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

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.