Apart from directing a segment of the horror anthology Tales from the Dark 1 (2013), Hong Kong maverick Fruit Chan has been largely absent from feature filmmaking in recent years, preferring to dabble in short form narrative or undertake producer duties on such crowd-pleasers as Hot Summer Days (2010) and Love in Space (2011). Seeking to address the social-political fabric of a city that has undergone further change since his celebrated ‘Handover Trilogy’, Chan heads into science fiction territory with a satirical take on displacement as minibus passengers on a route to Tai Po find themselves stranded in limbo when the rest of Hong Kong’s population suddenly disappears. In speculating on a localized response to the apocalypse, The Midnight After follows Edgar Wright’s The World’s End (2013) and Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s This Is the End (2013), although Chan uses the scenario for comparatively metaphoric purposes with characters who constitute a social spectrum rather than the relatively closed groups seen in the other films. Working from a 2012 Internet novel posted under the pseudonym of Pizza, Chan has no trouble creating an eerie atmosphere in the early scenes, but his subsequent disregard for genre boundaries may gradually alienate those who like mysteries to be fully explained.
It begins with bus driver Suet (Lam Suet) enjoying an after hours gambling session when a co-worker calls to ask if he will cover his shift. After a bit of negotiation involving an outstanding debt to his colleague, Suet picks up his vehicle and waits as his passengers board the 02:25 night service from Mong Kok Road, Kowloon: they include a small time gangster Wong (Simon Yam), fortune teller Mak (Kara Hui), computer specialist Shun (Tsui Tin-Yau), married couple Bobby and Pat (Lee Sheung-ching and Vincci Cheuk), cokehead Blind Fai (Sam Lee), vinyl dealer Wai (singer Jan Curious), and some students of the Chinese University of Hong Kong who need to get back to campus in time to do their homework. Something strange happens as they go through the Lion Rock Tunnel on its way to the New Territories with the rest of the vehicles on the road vanishing, causing the passengers to become increasingly unsettled as the minibus rolls into Tai Po. Unable to reach friends, family or emergency services with their mobile phones, they agree to swap numbers in order to meet up the following day at one of the district’s restaurants if the city has not returned to normal. The situation soon goes from odd to panic-inducing as some of the passengers fall ill before turning into dust, phones start ringing only to emit a harsh electronic scream, and Chi (Wong You-nam) keeps spotting an ominous figure wearing a gas mask.
There are elements of the television series Lost (2004-2010) here with the passengers trying to figure out what has happened with various suggestions being offered – death in a road accident, nuclear meltdown and time travel – but Chan does not follow through on any of these possibilities. Instead, the group squabbles about how to proceed, effectively trapping themselves in the restaurant through an inability to settle on a course of action. Many of these arguments are indicative of class differences in Hong Kong and provide the ensemble with some pointed exchanges, especially Yam, whose talkative hoodlum is a welcome change of pace from the law enforcers that have come to define his career. This extended section also features some bizarre tonal shifts that range from a musical interlude as Wai delivers a show-stopping performance of Space Oddity to a questionable act of vigilante justice when the group realizes that they have a rapist in their midst.
Those expecting an offbeat genre item will find some pleasures in the first half, with infected students running down a deserted freeway as their bodies disintegrate while the ever-thrifty Chan pulls off a convincing vision of the apocalypse on an indie budget by emptying the streets of such a densely populated metropolis. However, as Chan burrows inward to social critique rather than building towards an explanation for what has occurred, the initially curious may be inclined to zone out. Tai Po was once a traditional market town, but is now becoming a suburb that is particularly popular with those who work across the border in Shenzhen. This makes it emblematic of Hong Kong’s intensifying identity crisis, one that the group of passengers must navigate if they are to make a successful escape attempt rather than flounder in a doom-laden sprawl.
Darkly humorous, occasionally disorientating and defiantly messy, The Midnight After is perhaps too haphazard to unequivocally achieve whatever cumulative effect that its director may have been aiming for, but it’s a genuine one-off and a timely reminder of Chan’s unpredictable talent.