Hong Kong films have been gradually losing their identity in recent years. Once filled with crime, horror and social commentary, they have become diluted to the point of no significance. One of the main reasons is the rise of mainland China co-productions. Owing to the lack of a film rating system in China and the financial opportunities of its market, Hong Kong films that cater to the mainland are rendered predictable, unambitious and, in other cases, even xenophobic, homophobic, and propagandistic. An extreme example of such a film would be the Donnie Yen fantasy Iceman (2014), a film intended for release in two parts, so horrifically terrible that the second instalment remains unreleased to this day. So why am I explaining such details for this review? Because it is becoming increasingly rare that films involving themes of superstition, blood and gore, corruption, magic and other “taboo” themes are being released these days. And now we have Keeper of Darkness, a ghost film directed by acclaimed actor Nick Cheung that encompasses all those themes. Considering the mixed reception of Cheung’s first directorial effort, Hungry Ghost Ritual (2014), is Keeper of Darkness any good?
Cheung plays Fatt, a gangster/exorcist with a tortured past due who deals with ghosts, but not in a violent way. What makes him different from other exorcists (or Ghostbusters, for that matter) is that he empathises with them and tries to get them let go of their hatred or anger and pass on. He lives in his dilapidated apartment, with his girlfriend, Cherr (Amber Kuo) who just so happens to be a ghost of 88 years. His partner, Chung (Louis Cheung) also claims he can see ghosts and tries to advertise their activities by uploading videos of them online. The videos go viral and it makes Fatt an overnight sensation. It then captures the attention of Ling, (Sisley Choi) a rookie reporter, looking for her one big break. Elsewhere, a vengeful and malevolent spirit, Hark (Xing Yu) is causing chaos, killing numerous people by burning them into scorched earth and it is up to Fatt and the others to stop him. But can Fatt stop him while keeping his personal issues involving his deceased mother (Karena Lam) and Cherr’s transmigration at bay?
Despite ghosts being integral to the plot, Keeper of Darkness is not a horror film per se. The plot involving the catching of ghosts is just a through-line for Cheung to focus what he is really going for: character. The film is surprisingly character-driven and it is quite endearing and refreshing to see, especially in a genre like this. We get to see flashbacks to not only Fatt’s past, but the villain’s and Cherr’s as well. Having a capable cast as assembled here doesn’t hurt. Cheung is fantastic as Fatt, portraying his character’s enigmatically tortured side as well as his romantic side perfectly. He has chemistry with Kuo, who gives a lovable performance as the long-suffering Cherr, even when dubbed. Choi is a good sport for all the haunted shenanigans and could easily move on from TVB to film acting if she wanted to. The rest of the supporting cast are fine, with great cameos from Chin Kar-lok, who’s amusing as a impostor exorcist, to Lam, who’s fine as Fatt’s mother and there is a cameo in the end of the film, who I won’t spoil, that points to a sequel.
What also makes Keeper of Darkness a fun time is the odd sense of humour that Cheung peppers throughout. Scenes where Fatt reacts in a too cool and collected way to horrific details can be amusing. Digs at the political position of Hong Kong are funny as well, particularly when delivered by Phillp Keung Ho-man, who plays a mob boss looking to do good deeds. One joke from his character had me in stitches and it involves an ashtray. There are scenes that take advantage of the horror genre for laughs, like a scene where Cherr scares Ling as she visits Fatt’s home. Scenes like this are reminiscent of old-school HK horror comedies like Haunted Cop Shop (1987) and Out of the Dark (1995) and it gives Keeper of Darkness a nice retro feel. As for the production values, the cinematography by Chan Chi-ying and production design by the acclaimed Yee Chung-man is appropriately ugly and beautiful; the CGI is also great, when it’s not overused.
What is unfortunate is the unfocused storytelling and odd directorial choices. The film introduces the characters and their interactions, but it lacks a narrative drive as it jumps from scene to scene with not much cohesion. The main plot is also given the short-shrift due to the lack of tension and an overreliance on CGI, which is strange considering the villain’s tragic backstory. The drama focuses more on Fatt’s past and his relationship with Cherr and it overrides the main plot in terms of screen-time and even tone shifts. You can’t get a lot of thrills when you see two characters pantomime a game of ping-pong, can you? Like the latter, there are some scenes that are just mind-boggling to witness and it does take you out of the film. For example, a flashback is meant to explain the backstory and answer some questions, but it is rendered confusing and even befuddling when certain irrational actions from two of the characters are done in quick succession within the same scene. It did shock me, but the execution was so random, it only resulted in puzzlement.
Overall, Keeper of Darkness is inconsistent but still a distinctive and entertaining ride that is a huge improvement over Cheung’s directorial debut. The film ends on a sequel-bait moment and I honestly would look forward to it, since the characters are so well-defined that I would love to see what they would do in the future.
Keeper of Darkness is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday July 9 at the SVA Theatre at 12pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.
This review has been crossposted at Film-Momatic Reviews.