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)

Limbo (智齒, Soi Cheang, 2021)

“I forgive you. Please live well”, a final message from the dying to one attempting to survive the junkyard hellscape of contemporary Hong Kong. Soi Cheang’s stylish thriller Limbo (智齒), shot in a high contrast monochrome lending the city state the rain-soaked aesthetic of cyberpunk noir, is in many senses a purgatorial odyssey as its pregnant title implies sending its duo of morally compromised cops into a world of the dispossessed inhabited by those “thrown away” by their society and thereafter left to rot among the detritus of an uncaring city. 

Hong Kong’s homeless may occupy a liminal space, trapped in an inescapable limbo, but it’s grizzled cop Cham (Gordon Lam Ka-tung) who is the most arrested, unable to move on from the accident which left his pregnant wife suspended in a coma. To escape his own sense of purgatorial inertia, he seeks closure in chasing down petty criminal Wong To (Cya Liu) whom he holds responsible for his fate on discovering she has been granted early parole for good behaviour. As fate would have it, Wong To’s release back into the underworld (after all, where else was she to go?) has unexpected connection to the case Cham is currently investigating in the mysterious appearance of random severed hands each belonging to “social outcasts”, as Cham’s slick rookie partner puts it, they fear may hint at the existence of a serial killer growing in confidence. 

Adapted from a novel by Lei Mi, the film’s Chinese title is simply “Wisdom Tooth”, a tongue in cheek reference to the ongoing toothache which places cop two Will Ren (Mason Lee) in his own kind of purgatorial pain, the offending molar eventually knocked out during his climactic fight with the killer during which he will in a sense transgress, passing from innocence to experience in gaining the wisdom that police work’s not as black and white as he may have believed it to be. “Cops are human too” his boss reminds him as he takes the controversial step of reporting his new partner for inappropriate use of force while pursuing a personal vendetta not exactly connected with his current case. He doesn’t disagree, but points out that police officers have guns and are supposed to uphold the law, not abuse their authority and take it into their own hands. 

But then, who is really responsible for the junkyards of the modern city and their ever increasing denizens abandoned by a society which chooses to discard them along with all their other “rubbish”, little different from the dismembered mannequins which people the killer’s eerie lair. Soi frequently cuts back to scenes of the dispossessed often looking stunned or vacant as they sit on mattresses or abandoned sofas surrounded by the pregnant disrepair of a city in the midst of remaking itself as if they were sitting on skin in the process of being shed by a slow moving snake. It would be tempting to assume the killer has a vendetta against “social outcasts”, his victims sex workers, drug users, and criminals though in truth these people are simply the most vulnerable even if there is no clear motive provided for the crimes save a minor maternal fixation and possible religious mania. A drug dealer ensnared by Cham’s net remains loyal to the killer, “We’re not as crazy as you. We are rubbish, so what? In this world, he’s the only one who cares.” she tells him, unwilling to give up her one source of connection even while aware of her constant proximity to death and violence. 

Cast into this world, Wong To too is trapped in an individual purgatory longing for forgiveness for her role in the death of Cham’s wife, a forgiveness he cruelly denies her even while making use of her desperation to force her to risk her life for him in betraying her underworld contacts to edge towards the killer. “Why are you treating me like this?” she asks, “I don’t want to die”, well aware that denied his direct vengeance by Will Cham is attempting to kill her by proxy. Wong To keeps running, keeps fighting, refuses to give up while seeking atonement and an escape from this broken world of violence and decay. It is she who eventually holds the key to an escape from purgatory, the cycle is ended only in forgiveness. Soi’s stylish drama may paint the modern society as a venal hellscape neglected by corrupt authority, but nevertheless permits a final ray of light in the possibility of liberation through personal redemption. 


Limbo streams in Europe until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

G Affairs (G殺, Lee Cheuk-pan, 2018)

G Affairs poster 1“Many think Hong Kong is getting better, but I can tell you for sure Hong Kong is getting worse” says the dejected hero of Lee Cheuk-pan’s striking debut, G Affairs (G殺). Reminiscent of Fruit Chan’s landmark chronicle of handover malaise Made in Hong, G Affairs finds itself in a city once again in crisis where the young struggle to see a future, abandoned or misused by the older generation who think only of themselves in an increasingly nihilistic world of violence and transaction.

Lee opens with an arresting scene shot in 4:3 in which a teenage boy practices his cello while a scantily clad woman opens the door only to be dragged back to the couch by a burly policeman who proceeds to have his way with her until a severed head suddenly bounces in through the French doors. The story of how the head came to land there brings together a disparate collection of people from all walks of life – teenage cello player Tai (Lam Sen), his classmate Yuting (Hanna Chan), her autistic friend Don (Kyle Li), her corrupt cop dad “Master Lung” (Chapman To Man-chak), former sex worker stepmother Mei (Huang Lu), and high school teacher Markus (Alan Luk Chun-kwong) with whom Yuting has been experimenting with oral sex.

Today’s lesson is brought to us by the letter G – chosen by Don as his favourite letter in the Western alphabet connected as it is to many of his beloved computer words, but reminiscent to Yuting of a human skull with its jaw hanging open. Above it all, Yuting resents her fellow students at the elite high school, especially the immature boys who nickname her “G” behind her back for a number of reasons ranging from an unflattering comparison to a busty classmate and the fact that her stepmother was a sex worker the slang word for which sounds like G in Chinese. Tai, meanwhile, is not well liked either and also considers himself superior to his surroundings, proclaiming that only losers need friends and frequently dobbing in his classmates for their bullying behaviour. Don, a few years older, is associated with another G word – “gay” which people seem to assume him to be for unclear reasons, and is an outcast because of his autism.

The three seem to be more or less abandoned by their parents. Tai lives alone, a melancholy musician who believes that “things of value cannot be found in the world” only in music, literature and art, while his parents have long since departed in search of riches. “A family that’s never home is not a family” he explains to mainlander Mei who hoped to find a new life for herself in Hong Kong but even with her present “family” feels even more alone than she ever had before. Her stepdaughter Yuting intensely resents her, regarding her father’s affair with Mei as the primary cause of her mother’s gastric cancer and subsequent death. Yuting also resents her father, ashamed of his embarrassing gangster antics and tendency to spout high minded quotes to mask his essential superficiality. Neglecting his daughter, Lung positions himself as a kind of father figure to Don to whose parents own an internet cafe which facilitates some of Lung’s dirty work.

Dirty work is something of a Lung speciality but as Tai says, he’s not even that bad a man merely someone trying to make a fast buck in the burgeoning Hong Kong underworld. Calling himself “Master Lung”, he thinks of himself as maintaining his own kind of order – “one country, two systems” as Yuting later ironically describes her complicated home life, but may actually be on the “better” side of law enforcement as we witness the legitimate police waterboard a terrified Don who is largely unable to answer their questions in the way they insist on asking them, and physically abuse a guilty Markus while threatening to expose his illicit relationship with Yuting and, it turns out, her stepmother Mei. Another middle-aged hypocrite, Markus confesses only to introducing Mei and her sex worker sister to his church group in the belief that they “deserved salvation”.

That may not be a view commonly held by most as Mei finds out during an impassioned conversation with Yuting’s headmistress who berates her for her “shameless” past. Speaking as a mainlander, a trafficked woman, and a sex worker, Mei hits back by asking what right Hong Kong people have to look down on her and why it is her background in sex work is so problematic that everyone seems to be telling her it would be inappropriate for her to be a mother which is only what she’s trying to be to Yuting despite her animosity. Lung might have married Mei, but he wastes no time denigrating other mainland women trafficked to the Hong Kong underworld and cooly brushes off complaints after shooting a man with the justification that no one cares about another dead mainlander. Mei does her best to be “happy”, but learning that her own mother has been executed by the Chinese state for opposing its oppression leaves her adrift, longing to go “home” but knowing there is no home to go to and no safe land even in Hong Kong.

Children are the adults of tomorrow, Yuting explains, but the adults of today have robbed them of any possible future. Lee’s depiction of contemporary Hong Kong is one of increasing chaos, a hopeless place that has lost its way. The older generation think only of money while the young want something more but struggle to find anything of meaning in the soulless modern world which seems to be imploding all around them. Strangely hopeful, yet infinitely nihilistic, Lee ends on the single word “Go” as his troubled protagonists find their own kind of peace in the abyss of the modern city.


G Affairs was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼, Wilson Yip, 2017)

paradox posterLouis Koo, possibly the hardest working actor in Hong Kong, has played his fair share of heroic (and not so heroic) cops but you’d be hard pushed to describe him as an action star. Proving nothing if not his dedication, Koo gives it his all as the lead in Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼), the latest in the SPL franchise directed by Ip Man’s Wilson Yip. Yip also directed the first in the series but stepped away for the second, though there is no narrative continuity with any of the films and, confusingly enough, the SPL tag seems to have been dropped from the international title altogether. In any case, what Paradox shares with instalments one and two is a series of intensely kinetic action scenes built around a storm of three incompatible personality types coupled with a quest narrative as Koo searches for clues in the disappearance of his 16 year old daughter.

Yip begins the film inside the memories of Hong Kong cop Lee Chung-Chi (Louis Koo) as he remembers the golden time when his daughter was young and worshipped her dad, crawling into his bed in the morning with a video camera ready for a whole day of birthday fun. Lee buys a cute a silver bracelet with a teddy bear charm but it’s the 16 year old Wing-Chi (Hanna Chan) he gives it to. Lee and his daughter are in a restaurant, not at home, and the air between them is tense. A boy turns up and Wing-Chi introduces him as her boyfriend but if Lee is annoyed things are about to get worse. The pair want to get married because Wing-Chi wants “to keep the baby”. Lee barely reacts save for abruptly stepping away from the table. When he returns he seems as if he’s composed himself, but in reality he has already made a catastrophic error of judgement which will force his daughter away from him.

Wing-Chi goes to Thailand to visit a friend and disappears. Lee goes to look for her, breaking out his best investigator skills and teaming up with local cop Chui Kit (Wu Yue) who is soon to be a father himself, but what he finds there leads him onto a dark path of paternal guilt, regret, and suffering whilst wading through the corruption and cruelty of the Thai underworld.

Though the narrative is, in a sense, unimportant, Yip homes in on the nature of fatherhood and the sometimes difficult or conflicted position a father finds himself in when trying to protect his child. Lee may think he’s “doing the right thing” when he clamps down on his teenage daughter’s plans to start a family of her own way ahead of schedule, but then again perhaps this was not his decision to make and ruining three lives to suit himself is nothing more than selfishness masquerading as love. It is his own actions which send his daughter into the path of danger, and then later decide her fate on a split second decision.

Later, Kit’s father-in-law (Vithaya Pansringarm) faces a similar dilemma when he’s threatened by government big wigs and fears his own daughter (and unborn grandchild) may be in danger if he does not play along. Lee’s quest to find Wing-Chi runs in parallel with that of the local mayor to win re-election, only the mayor has a bad heart which causes him to collapse before an important rally. Shady fixer Cheng (Gordon Lam) decides the mayor needs a heart transplant (seemingly unaware of the complexity of the operation and the time needed for recovery) which all links back to a dodgy American ex-pat (Chris Collins) who operates a large scale meat factory as a front for illegal organ trafficking.

The stories of Kit and Lee are linked by the curious use of the classic Chinese pop song The Moon Represents My Heart made famous by Teresa Teng. The song with its constant references to the “heart” which is also visually represented by the cheerful cards around the mayor’s bed perhaps over does things in the metaphor stakes but does its best to tug at the heartstrings in its insistence on a fathomless love in this case of fathers for their children. Koo’s rage only intensifies the more desperate he becomes as his quest hits continual dead ends punctuated by the discovery of various unpleasant characters lurking not just in the backstreets but in the police stations and political institutions of Pattaya.

The action scenes are visceral and kinetic though Koo makes the most impact when acting with stone cold efficiency, leaving the most memorable sequences to rising star Wu and Tony Jaa whose extremely brief appearance as a psychic / extremely buddhist cop may disappoint those deceived by his top billing into expecting his role to be more than a cameo. Nevertheless, Paradox delivers what it promised in Koo’s unexpected metamorphosis into an ultra cool action star whilst sending his moody cop on a dark journey of the soul as he confronts the depths of his own complicity in the corruption which is consuming him.


Screened as the opening film of Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Co-stars Louis Koo and Wu Yue recorded a new version of The Moon Represents My Heart especially for the film

Teresa Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart