At once a throwback to the heyday of 1980s Hong Kong horror and a concentrated effort to sell today’s audience on a floundering local genre, Tales from the Dark 1 is a suitably unsettling, if never outright terrifying, anthology which boasts some stellar names in front of and behind the camera. In a bid to keep the ghoulish proceedings not only classy but tonally consistent, the producers have opted to adapt stories by Lilian Lee, who is best known to Western audiences through the film versions of Rouge (1987) and Farewell my Concubine (1993), although many of her other works have also made the transfer from page to screen. Tales from the Dark 1 was almost immediately followed by a second anthology of Lee’s spooky stories, but the first effort has enjoyed greater international exposure, presumably because the talent involved has more cachet beyond the Hong Kong scene.
It opens with ‘Stolen Goods’, which marks the directorial debut of veteran actor Simon Yam, who casts himself in the lead role of Kwan, a social marginal who is unable to stay in work. Fired from his construction job for being late, he manages to find employment as a chef at a cheap café, but soon loses that position due to being too generous with his servings of pork. Behind on the rent for his cramped, coffin-like apartment, Kwan resorts to stealing urns from a cemetery and holding them to ransom: when a relative of one of his victims agrees to pay to protect the widow from further grief, Kwan thinks that his fortunes are changing, but has actually set himself up for a supernatural encounter. As a director, Yam has a good feel for confined spaces and deserted backstreets, but fails to reign-in Yam the actor, who goes overboard with frustrated rants and physical tics. Still, he finds room for social commentary on the plight of Hong Kong citizens who are slipping off the economic grid while never striving to make the abrasive Kwan undeserving of his inevitable comeuppance.
A more comedic take on the ghosts that walk among us is provided by Lee Chi-ngai’s highly entertaining ‘A Word in the Palm’ in which a pair of amateur spiritualists take on the case of the wife of a high school swimming coach who has been experiencing visitations. Fortune teller Hon (a terrific Tony Leung Ka-fai) can actually see ghosts, but is about to close up his shop in order to restore his relationship with his estranged wife (Eileen Tung), who is embarrassed by his profession, and spend more time with his music prodigy son. Teaming up with eccentric crystal dealer Lan (Kelly Chen), the well-meaning Hon has just a few hours to rescue the haunted wife from the forces of the occult if he is to arrive on time for a crucial family dinner. It’s often played for broad laughs, with Chen reveling in the chance to play a complete ditz, but Leung’s subtle turn as a practitioner with a genuine gift who is perceived as a second-rate shyster grounds the proceedings by balancing Hon’s hapless manner with a real sense of purpose once he takes on a client who requires more than calm reassurance and one of his complimentary relaxation CDs.
The biggest directorial name is saved for last, with Fruit Chan delivering the visceral ‘Jing Zhe’. Continuing his interest in capturing Hong Kong’s less affluent urban spaces, Chan sets his entry around Canal Road Flyover and focuses on the elderly Chu (Siu Yam Yam) who practices the folk sorcery of hitting the photographs or likenesses of ‘villains’ in order to bring about their misfortune. Chu is visited by a rich woman (Yuen Qiu) who has taken a strong disliking to her daughter-in-law and it initially looks like Chan is revisiting his Three… Extremes (2004) segment Dumplings – also based on a short story by Lee – with a wealthy lady reluctantly dealing with a lower member of society in order to reassert her domestic status. However, this interaction turns out to be a means of providing exposition with the cause of the eventual shocks being the final customer of the night, a ghost (Dada Chan) who is seeking revenge on four people who have wronged her: Chu carries out the apparition’s requests, but comes to realize that she may know this particular set of ‘villains’. Chan applies his quasi-documentary sensibility to genre territory with Chu scraping a living by chanting away while smacking paper effigies, but he comes a little unstuck with a climactic special effects onslaught that recalls the Final Destination franchise (2000-2011) at its most desperate.
Tales from the Dark 1 struggles to hang together: the opening establishes a street for the dead where a glutinous ghost (Lam Suet) stuffs his face from beyond he grave, but it only features in the Yam section, to which it has a limited connection, thereby robbing the film of a potentially satisfying wraparound structure. This quibble aside, it’s a consistently creepy portmanteau experience which thrives on its engagement with local folklore yet is sharply scripted enough to be accessible to horror fans who may not be so familiar with Chinese ghost stories. The cinematography of each segment (handled respectively by Jason Kwan, Wade Muller and Lam Wah-chuen) creates distinctions within project parameters: ‘Stolen Goods’ goes for dimly-lit claustrophobia, while ‘A Word in the Palm’ has a cartoonish brio, and ‘Jing Zhe’ exerts a rawness that is intensified by the cluttered street noise on the soundtrack.
It will take more than a few well-turned anthologies to firmly re-establish Hong Kong horror cinema as a reliable source of scares, but the quality of Tales from the Dark 1 certainly bodes well for a genre revival, providing that a similar level of care is taken in selecting the right source material.