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)

An Inspector Calls (浮華宴, Raymond Wong & Herman Yau, 2015)

Inspector Calls poster 1J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls found itself out of favour until a phenomenally successful stage production brought it back into the national consciousness in the early ‘90s, but even if some decry its inherent melodrama as a relic of another era the play’s comments on the entrenched classism of British society sadly still ring true. An Inspector Calls is many things, but one thing it defiantly is not is funny – a series of concentric tales of betrayals and oppressions, Priestley’s drama lays bare the callousness with which the privileged bolster their position through the story of one faceless factory girl standing in for an entire social class whose lives are often at the mercy of those “above” them.

In adapting Priestley’s play as a Chinese New Year movie (a strange concept in itself), Herman Yau and Raymond Wong relocate to contemporary Hong Kong, re-conceiving it as a broad comedy of the kind one might expect for the festive period. The setup is however still the same. The Kau family will be receiving a visitation – this time from Inspector Karl (Louis Koo Tin-lok) who has some difficult news for each of them. Three hours previously, a young woman committed suicide in her apartment by drinking bleach, taking the child she was carrying with her. Inspector Karl views this as a double murder and, based on the diary they found at the crime scene, has brought the reckoning over to the Kaus’.

The Kaus, at the present time, are preparing an engagement party for daughter Sherry (Karena Ng) who will be marrying the handsome younger brother of a factory owner, Johnnie (Hans Zhang Han). What no one can know is that the family business is going under, the Kaus are broke, mum and dad don’t get on, and all of this finery is merely rented affectation. The only member of the family who still seems to have something like a social conscience – Tim (Gordon Lam Ka-tung), the 27-year-old younger son, is viewed by all as a feckless and naive hippy, hiding out in his childhood bedroom, still all fluffy cushions and toy soldiers.

As the Inspector explains, he holds Mr Kau (Eric Tsang Chi-wai) responsible because the woman once worked in his factory and he fired her for participating in a strike for better pay and conditions. Sherry got her fired too when she worked in an upscale fashion store. Johnnie knew her during an unfortunate period as a bar hostess, and Tim as a masseuse. Mrs Kau (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan), who heads up a woman’s charity and publicly espouses tolerance while privately judgmental, once turned her down for familial support seeing as the father of her child was still living. She advises holding him to account and if he won’t pay, forcing his family to take responsibility on his behalf. The irony being that the father is likely her own son and that if this poor woman had rocked up at the Kaus’ with a sad story and an infant in her arms, she would have been met with nothing more than contempt save perhaps some hush money to send her on her way.

The Kaus are merely a series of examples of the various ways the wealthy mistreat the poor, wielding their sense of entitlement like a weapon. Yau and Wong adopt an oddly Brechtian approach in their expressionist production design with the faceless masses identified only through titles – the word “labour” on the workers’ caps, “manager” in the fashion store, “secretary” at the foundation. None of these people are really worthy of names because they will always be “less” while the Kaus are “more” in more ways than one. Actions, however, have consequences. The family console themselves that this is all far too coincidental, that they couldn’t all have known the “same” woman in different guises, but that in many ways is the point – she isn’t one woman but all women, used, abused, and discarded not only by heartless men but by jealous and judgemental members of her own sex too. Better than her than me, they might say, but that’s no way to run a healthy society as the sensitive, slightly damaged Tim seems to see.

Like the Birlings, the Kaus attempt to brush the Inspector’s warning off, thinking it’s all been some elaborate prank that can they laugh about and then forget, but there will be a reckoning even if they attempt to gloss over the various revelations regarding their moral failings. Wong and Yau’s vague gesturing towards the outlandish greed of the hypocritical super wealthy is undercut by the ridiculous New Year slapstick of it all despite the Metropolis-like production design and expressionist trappings, giving in to an excess of its own in an extremely unexpected musical cameo from a martial arts star and the decision to end on a social realist photo of an innocent, pigtailed proletarian woman dressed in red. Nevertheless, strange as it all is the bizarre adaptation of Priestley’s play has its own peculiar charm even if it’s outrageousness rather than moral outrage which takes centre stage.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Gallants (打擂台, Derek Kwok & Clement Cheng, 2010)

Gallants PosterLike the master at the centre of Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng’s Gallants (打擂台), old school martial arts movies have been in a deep sleep since their Shaw Brothers heyday. Drawing inspiration from the kung fu films of old, Gallants is a tale of buried heroism suddenly reawakening and the risks of writing off veteran challengers just because of their age. It’s also a tribute to those perhaps more innocent times and, in contrast to a prevailing trend, a true Hong Kong film filled with typically Cantonese (sometimes untranslatable humour) and meta references to the area’s long cinematic history.

For a brief moment in his childhood, Cheung (Wong You-nam) was the unbeatable superhero who never lost a fight. These days, he’s a nerdy loser who sometimes hides under his desk to escape his angry boss. Despatched by the shady real estate company he works for, Cheung is sent back to his rural hometown entrusted with the mission of convincing the local population to surrender their homes so the developers can build a large scale complex. Whilst there he gets attacked by local punks only to be saved by an old guy who has immense kung fu skills.

The old guy turns out to be one of two living in a ramshackle tea house that used to be a martial arts studio. Tiger (Leung Siu-lung) and Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai) turned the Gate of Law into a teahouse to make ends meet while their legendary sifu, Master Law (Teddy Robin), has been in a coma for the last 30 years. When a fight breaks out and the old guys get to strut their stuff against a local kingpin, Cheung decides to petition them to take him on as a pupil. In a classic case of bad timing, Cheung is around when the teahouse is raided again and someone attacks Master Law causing him to wake up and act as if the last 30 years never happened. He thinks Cheung is both of his young pupils, Tiger and Dragon, in one and that the real 30 years older versions of Tiger and Dragon are some random old guys Cheung has agreed to train out of pity.

If you don’t fight, you won’t lose quips Law, but if you fight you have to win. Like any good martial movie, Gallants is more about the journey than the destination. Rather than focussing solely on Cheung who experiences several conflicts of the heart when he realises that his adversary is the childhood friend he used to bully and that he was technically on the wrong side to begin with, Kwok and Cheng broaden the canvas to allow Tiger, Dragon, and Law to take centre stage. Still skilled martial artists, the guys give it their all in the knowledge that they’ll have to work far harder now that they aren’t as agile as they once were. Still, they have the true spirit of kung fu and resolve to keep getting back up each time they’re knocked down.

This oddly defeatist attitude which presupposes humiliation but insists on perseverance gives the film much of its warmhearted, ironic tone as the hapless martial arts heroes repeatedly fail yet refuse to back down. The other source of comedy lies in the hilarious performance of the tiny Teddy Robin as the supposedly all powerful Law. Law, as it turns out, is a wisecracking lecher who sets about flirting with just about every young girl he lays eyes on before decamping to a hostess bar and asking for the ladies from 30 years ago. Former starlet Susan Shaw makes an amusing cameo as the long suffering, lovelorn doctor apparently in love with Law since their youth who has continued to care for him throughout his illness but is entirely forgotten when Law wakes up in full on sleaze mode.

Bizarre gags including one about a missing preserved duck, jostle with impressive action sequences performed by two veterans proving they’ve still got what it takes all these years later. The aesthetic is pure ‘70s Shaw Brothers complete with speedy zooms and whip pans accompanied by an overly dramatic score, lovingly echoing the classic kung fu era rather than trying to attack it through parody. As funny as it all is, and it is, Gallants is also surprisingly warmhearted as it finds space to value the skills of its elderly protagonists as well as the enduring bonds of friendship which connect them.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)