Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠, Sunny Lau, 2021)

“People have always been scarier than ghosts” according to the hero of Sunny Lau’s retro horror comedy, Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠). He is not in a sense wrong, the gang of down on their luck filmmakers unexpectedly uncovering a minor historical injustice while operating an “authentic” haunted house, and while the ghosts may be scary they are merely attempting to connect and right an old wrong. Filled with cynical humour, Lau’s witty screenplay is often disparaging of the contemporary Hong Kong film industry and an increasingly cutthroat society but finds unexpected pathos in the romantic tragedy at its centre. 

As the film opens, fast talking producer Pierre (Matt Chow Hoi-Kwong) has been hauled in front of mob boss Choi (Eric Kot Man-fai) who wants to know what the holdup is on their mutual film project. Boss Choi meanwhile has another problem in that the hotpot restaurant he’s just bought isn’t doing so well owing to the place being haunted. Ever enterprising Pierre comes up with a new idea: opening an “authentic” haunted house on the same site featuring real ghosts while shooting a movie in the same location. Getting the green light, Pierre enlists prosthetics guy Gary (Yatho Wong) to design the interiors for a horror show inspired by the real life studio fire of 30-years previously supposedly started by a clown in resentment after being turned down by the leading lady. 

Hoping to get more information, the guys talk to surviving actor Uncle Cheong (Chan Kwok-pong) who spins them a tale of his own heroism, claiming that he tried to intervene when the clown attacked his girlfriend and co-star but had to step out only to return after getting a pager message about the fire and attempt to save what lives he could. Perhaps unexpectedly, Cheong is all for their haunted house endeavour even making an appearance on opening night, but the gang can’t help but feel there must be more to this strange tale of arson and revenge. 

Mildmannered in the extreme, Gary finds himself conflicted in running Pierre’s unusual enterprise, wondering if it’s corrupting him or then again “Maybe to survive in Hong Kong, being mean is a basic necessity”. “Conning people diligently in Hong Kong is the path to success”, according to his friend even as they ironically prepare to open their “authentic” haunted house where encounters with “real” ghosts quickly find an audience who believe screaming in supernatural terror has therapeutic effects that can ease the depression and anxiety they feel as young people in contemporary Hong Kong. 

Pierre sells the haunted house idea partly on the strength that no one makes horror movies anymore because, famously, you can’t sell them on the Mainland and so co-productions aren’t interested. He describes Gary as the “tumour that’s killing the Hong Kong film industry” while constantly talking a big game, like a stereotypical producer willing to say everything and everything in order to get ahead, even hobnobbing with triads. “Hong Kong Cinema is all about discipline” he ironically claims despite being massively behind on all his projects, giving Gary a dressing down for being a few days late with his designs. 

“Some things don’t need to be completely understood” a zany medium claims, somewhat duplicitously, but it’s not until their own encounter with the ghost that the gang start to pick up on the dark legacy of the studio fire making use, possibly, of an unfair prejudice against clowns to sell the idea of a madman killer driven insane by lust and resentment towards a woman who had rejected him. What they discover is a sad tale of frustrated love, wounded male ego, and bitter regret that has perhaps manifested itself as a deeply held grudge as the guilty party holds on to their guilt and shame despite themselves. “It’s never too late to turn back” the villain is cautioned by a now elderly shaman, but in some ways it is, especially if you’ve already donned the clown suit of vicarious violence, “all debts must be paid”.  

Making the most of its whimsical premise, the increasingly surreal tale doesn’t skimp on the horror imagery with its scarred ghosts and scary clowns but also harks back to the horror comedies of old with its sutras and seals as the gang attempt to solve the mystery and right a historical injustice. Filled with amusing meta references to the contemporary Hong Kong film industry, ironic satire, and absurdist gags Lau’s charmingly off the wall comedy has only sympathy for its lovelorn ghosts of a bygone era and the hapless film crew attempting to navigate the vagaries of an often absurd industry.


Sugar Street Studio streams worldwide until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tracey (翠絲, Jun Li, 2018)

Tracey PosterHong Kong has often sought to present itself through its cinema as an ultramodern, cosmopolitan city, claiming a kind of cultural freedom from Mainland oppression. In truth, however, there are areas in which it may disappoint itself. Jun Li’s debut feature, Tracey (翠絲), is in many ways an empathetic attempt to redress the balance in making plain the destabilising effect emotional repression can exert across an entire society, causing nothing other than the mutual unhappiness which provokes one person to oppress another in service of nothing more than conventionality.

A married, 50-something father of two grown up children, Tai-hung’s (Philip Keung) conventional, ordered life is disrupted when he receives a phone call telling him that a treasured childhood friend, Ching, has been killed while working in Syria as a war photographer. Unbeknownst to anyone, and not quite admitted even to himself, Ching had been the love of Tai-hung’s life and his death finally forces him into a reconsideration of the feelings which are now, perhaps, a lost opportunity. The sense of loss is doubly brought home when he collects Ching’s partner, Bond (River Huang), from the airport and discovers that he had been legally married to another man in the UK though the pair’s marriage certificate is not valid in Hong Kong which presents a problem in trying to repatriate Ching’s ashes.

Bond, himself from Singapore where homosexuality is at least technically still illegal, knew of Ching’s love for Tai-hung and Tai-hung’s unrealised attraction to Ching but struggles with Tai-hung’s decision to not to embrace his sexuality, preferring to marry and have children in pursuit of a conventional life. Despite having grown up in an arguably even more oppressive society, Bond is 20 years younger and has perhaps benefitted from an increasingly liberal world in which greater awareness has afforded him the vocabulary to process Tai-hung’s complex identity with a delicacy that was not available to Tai-hung in his youth, nor to his quasi-mentor Brother Darling (Ben Yuen) – a performer of Chinese Opera who specialised in female roles and confided to Tai-hung that he identified as a woman but is unlikely to have ever come across the term “transgender” let alone claim it as an identity.

Nevertheless, Bond’s arrival begins to push Tai-hung’s long repressed longing to the surface even if his first attempt to explain to Bond that he too identifies as a woman is met with mild derision as Bond misunderstands him in assuming his claiming of a female identity is an attempt to reject his homosexuality. What Tai-hung tries to explain to him is that he does not see himself as a gay man but a straight woman and therefore felt that pursuing his love for Ching, a man who loved men, would never have been a possibility. Fearing his gender identity would never be accepted by anyone, Tai-hung kept his true self hidden even from his closest friends and unwittingly placed a wedge between himself and the man he loved.

Bond pushes him still further with the perhaps unfair charge that his entire life has been essentially selfish and founded on the continued deception of his wife and children. Despite its seeming conventionality, Tai-hung’s family life is not altogether happy. His wife, Anne (Kara Hui), is a fiercely conservative sort who prizes nothing so highly as respectability as she proves by rifling through the maid’s room in search of evidence of sexual indiscretion which she later uses as grounds to suggest firing her. As the couple’s son Vincent (Ng Siu-hin) points out, there is also an unpleasant racial component to her puritanical morality which objects to her Indonesian maid having a right to a private life, fearing that she will bring “disease” into the house by sleeping with another “foreigner”. This is perhaps why she objects to her pregnant daughter’s (Jennifer Yu) desire to divorce her highflying lawyer husband when she discovers that his serial philandering has resulted in a sexually transmitted disease which he has passed to her and which has thankfully been detected early enough to avoid harming the baby.

Despite Anne’s pleas with her daughter that you don’t reject someone for turning out to be different than you assumed them to be, she is obviously not ready to accept Tai-hung’s authentic self despite having been aware that there was always something slightly amiss within their marriage which prevented it from being a true and total union. It is perhaps this sense of nagging incompleteness and unhappiness which has pushed Anne’s need for respectable conventionality into overdrive, as if a superficially successful adherence to the rules could be a substitute for emotional fulfilment. Her own suffering then seeks to push her daughter into the same space as a self-sacrificing housewife who has exchanged personal happiness for the cold comfort of social respectability. 

Thanks to reuniting with a now elderly Brother Darling and finding himself accepted by the younger Bond, Tai-hung begins to find the courage to embrace his true self and discovers that many of his friends and relatives are more supportive than he might have assumed even if some of them may need time to get over the initial shock. As his mother tells him, the important thing in life is learning to find one’s peace of mind – something which could only be helped by abandoning the outdated Confucian ideas which continue to define the social order in favour of something warmer, freer, and fairer built on mutual acceptance and compassion.


Tracey screens as the closing night gala of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 24, 7pm, at AMC River East 21. It will also be screened in London as the closing night of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival on 9th May, 6pm, at BFI Southbank where members of the cast and crew will be attendance for a Q&A.

 Original trailer (English subtitles)

29+1 (Kearen Pang, 2016)

29+1 posterYou know what they call women over 25 in China? “Christmas cake” – no one wants you after the 25th, so you’re condemned to sit on the shelf for all eternity like a piece of overproduced seasonal confectionary (a silly analogy because Christmas cakes, at least English ones, may outlive us all). Christy Lam lives in Hong Kong, not mainland China, and so her worries are a little less intense but still the dreaded 30 is causing its own share of panic and confusion in her otherwise orderly, tightly controlled life. In 29+1 Kearen Pang adapts her own enormously successful 2005 stage play about the intertwined lives of two very different women who happen to share a birthday and are each approaching the end of their 20s in very different ways. By turns melancholy and hopeful, 29+1 finds both women at a natural crossroads but rather than casting them into a bottomless pit of despair, allows each of them to rediscover themselves through a kind of second adolescence in which they finally figure out what it is they want out of life.

Christy Lam’s (Chrissie Chau) morning routine is fairly well entrenched. The alarm clock ticks over from 6.29 to 6.30 and she rises, goes through her beauty regime, decides on an appropriate outfit for work, eats a low cal breakfast and then heads out. A month before her 30th birthday, Christy begins to feel restless but her life is good – she has a long-term boyfriend and she’s just received a promotion at work where she is both liked and respected for her talents. So why does she feel so…unsatisfied?

Like the grim harbinger of encroaching doom, the rot has already set in as symbolised by a leak in her apartment which has created a nasty stain on her pristine white walls and even spread to some of her precious handbags. Her landlord pledges to look at it, but unbeknownst to Christy his wife has sold the apartment she’s been renting and she’s being kicked out with no notice. The landlord suggests moving in with her boyfriend but this proves unattractive for several reasons and so Christy ends up house sitting for a friend of the landlord’s nephew who is spending a month in Paris giving Christy some breathing space to figure things out.

Offering frequent asides to the audience, Christy’s acerbic observations of modern life and the expectations placed on women are both familiar and extremely funny. Running through her daily routine with wry irony, it’s clear Christy resents having to jump through all these hoops but also accepts them as just a part of being 29 in 2005. Catching a bus the morning after finding the leak in her apartment, she finds a former professor, now an insurance salesman, sitting across the aisle. After somewhat tactlessly remarking that she looks “completely different” from her college self, the professor then goes on to ask all the impolite questions people ask 29-year-old women as regards her job and marital status before getting into pension plans and mortgages. His insurance pitch proves a hit, and every other youngish woman (and one man acting on behalf of a little sister) picks up one of his information packs too.

At work at least, Christy is faring a little better. Unexpectedly receiving a promotion from her infinitely likeable if hardline boss, Elaine (Elaine Jin), Christy feels conflicted. The job is everything she thought she wanted, but suddenly she feels out-of-place – disconnected from her former colleagues and only now picking up on the immense gulf between herself, preparing to enter middle age with strict diets and bundling up to fight the aggressive air conditioning, and the new recruits – cheerfully wolfing down cakes and sugary drinks, dressed only in their light summer dresses and gossiping or boasting about slacking off even to the boss’ face. Despite her success Elaine is an approachable and friendly woman, prepared to give some real advice to her young protégé to the end that there are choices involved in everything and sometimes it comes to the point you need to make them rather than let things drag on.

Choices are things Christy’s avoided making, despite approaching life with an intense need for control. Facing several crises at once from her father’s Alzheimer’s to a strained relationship with her boyfriend of ten years, Christy is forced into a position she might not have welcomed but grudgingly admits may actually have been for the best. The apartment she ends up living in temporarily belongs to a young woman named Wong Ting-lok (Joyce Cheng) and, in contrast to Christy’s former home, is filled with a quirky sense of personality from the large Eiffel Tower of Polaroids pinned to the wall to the Leslie Cheung VHS collection and large number of vinyl records all of which Christy is welcome to enjoy. It is, however, Tin-lok’s “autobiography” that comes to capture her attention.

Tin-lok is a woman defined by her love of life and innate talent for cheerfulness even in adversity. Unlike Christy, her life has been less marked by the conventionally “successful” as she’s held down the same casual job in a record store run by a former celebrity for the past ten years and has never had a proper boyfriend despite her close friendship with Hon-ming (Babyjohn Choi) – the nephew of Christy’s landlord. Sometimes her lack of progress gets her down which explains the diary and the Polaroids – she likes to record her “achievements” in a more concrete way, but Tin-lok is, broadly, at home with herself. A recent crisis striking just as Christy’s had, prompts her into action – doing the things she’d always wanted to do in the knowledge that every moment is precious and there is no time to waste.

Pang gradually shifts into a kind of magical realism as the lives of Christy and Tin-lok begin to merge with Christy experiencing the life of Tin-lok from a first person perspective. Both women re-live old memories, inserting their current selves into a long passed era and looking back at it both with wistful nostalgia and the immediacy of unforgotten feeling. Christy’s trusted taxi driver laments that young people don’t know how to fix things anymore, every time something breaks they throw it out and buy a new one. Christy is learning how to make repairs to fractured dreams but thanks to some help from the resilient warmth of Tin-lok, finally figures out that things fall into place when you let them and you don’t have to make all your decisions based on what others have already decided for you.


Original trailer (English subtitles)