Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (Hong Kong, 2020) [NYAFF 2020]

Contemporary genre hybrid Hong Kong films are often defined by a certain manic energy that presumes these present times demand this pace and hyper-dynamism. Veteran Singaporean actor and director Mark Lee taps into this frenzy to capture the fanatical and addictive zeitgeist of reality television programming and round-the-clock digital entertainment in Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost.  

Hell Bank hits the ground running. Its spooky opening reel of a young guy glued to a game show on his smartphone, alone on a bus at night, hits the right notes of droll humour and tension inducing scares. Pulling away to reveal this as a broadcast episode on a huge screen to deafening laughter of an audience, the ghost in the bus is a judge of a reality show taking place in Hell. Hell is hi-tech, installed with the latest wireless technologies and gadgets, where a bribe of the latest iPhone or a billion worth of QR coded ‘Hellinotes’ is considered of some value. In here is also a successfully running reality contest Running Ghost where participants can have a second chance at life if they go to Earth as a ghost and succeed in scaring the living daylights out of a chosen person, under different rules-bound conditions. Pushed on stage as a last moment replacement is loafer Wong Hiu Kwai (Wong You Nam, aptly cast), a 27-year-old internet cable installer whose profession is considered outdated by Hell’s Human Resource head. Wong has no idea how he died and ascended to Hell. Slacker to his bone when he lived, he intends to continue to live an unbothered life in Hell but is hilariously conned into participating in the game.

As Wong is hand-carted along to his own place on Earth to begin his contest rounds, with his mentor Master Bull (Ben Yuen) as guide, he is plonked right in the centre of busy hipster groups spending their night out. The scene doesn’t miss a beat as these twenty-somethings and the Goth and brightly dressed audience in Hell are pretty much the same. Smartphones in hand, billboard videos and loud music around and cos-play partying hard, they take in all the sensory stimuli offered at one’s disposal as if their lives depended on them. Hyper Hell is merely a technologically advanced level of this desensitised life on Earth.

Living in an endless loop of more entertainment and more mania, on Earth and Hell, Hell’s Running Ghost offering a second go at life serves for its own pleasure and sustenance. Through this all, Lee though, mainly intends light-heartedness. He mines delightful comedy with Wong’s gags in Hell and with its inmates, and high suspense when ghosts are suddenly let loose, coolly defying expectations. Perhaps then, the melodramatic strand comes in a little too heavy handed with protracted flashbacks of sorceress Chiu Ling Kay’s (a lovely Cecilia So) childhood tragedy. Kay inadvertently meets Wong on his return to Earth, as she casts a spell on him. She becomes his staunch ally for a favour that will change Wong.  

Hell Bank moves quick and is shot and edited in a visual language that belongs to our digitally saturated times. Clueless Wong is given a watch in Hell loaded with apps that will enable him to complete his game rounds on Earth. As Master Bull breaks conversation and deadpan becomes a fast-paced digital commercial for Scare-N-Go app, the performance is not just for Wong but for the viewer as well. Wong walks around after activating the app, to find numerical scores hovering above the heads of people on simulated screens like video game characters. Hell’s Running Ghost is briskly introduced as an animated television advertisement and the wildly fantastical world of ghosts on Earth and inmates in Hell are cinematically rendered using the latest colourful and inventive special effects.

Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost isn’t one to ponder over serious existential crises or politicise on the current state of digital technologies and media saturation and peoples’ addiction to them. Yet when the wishing charm ‘Let It Go’ happens to fall from the tree, it liberates the characters who want closure and to move on in life, but also probably insinuates at a similar freeing and moving on for the better, if one wants to and wills, from the never-ending maniacal world of digital entertainment.

Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost is streaming as part of the New York Asian Film Festival which runs from August 28 to September 12.