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Fans of The Untold Story or The Ebola Syndrome, rejoice. Herman Yau, the maverick mind behind those two Hong Kong cult classics from the 1990s, has returned to the realm of ultra-gory, exploitative entertainment with The Sleep Curse, a paranormal thriller featuring mad scientists, zombie-like insomniacs and wartime rapists — and a ludicrous finale in which a wild variety of dismembered body parts fly around like there’s no tomorrow.
As a publicity gimmick, the audience at the world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival were given free wieners to munch on during the screening. Though one of Yau’s most technically proficient films in his three-decade career, The Sleep Curse looks more like a stunt in itself, starting from Yau’s reunion with actor Anthony Wong, who attained his A-list status through his turns as pathological killers in both The Untold Story and The Ebola Syndrome.
And then there’s the screenplay, with writers Erica Li and Eric Lee throwing in anything and everything that could possibly generate shock, awe and/or disgust in the viewer. Beyond the onscreen physical mutilation, the film would certainly court controversy in its attempt to conjure genre entertainment through the suffering of women forced into sexual slavery during the Second World War.
Then again, Yau never does anything by halves, something he deserves some credit for. And his passion for transgression should propel The Sleep Curse to some success in Hong Kong and attention from programmers and genre geeks seeking some extreme Asian action.
The film, set in 1990, begins strongly. Through a montage of snippets from shaky, grainy home videos, the viewer witnesses a rich, middle-aged Malaysian Chinese man’s spiraling physical condition as he struggles with severe insomnia. As this prologue draws to a bloody close, the narrative proper kicks off in Hong Kong, where the snarky, self-possessed neurologist Lam Sik-ka (Wong) goes about his business: He patronizes his students in class, conducts experiments in which he tries to keep hamsters awake against their will, and reacts furiously when his supervisors deny him funding for a project in which he tries to rid human beings of their need for sleep.
His routine is soon derailed with the appearance of Monique (Jojo Goh). A former flame of Lam’s, this mysterious dame is in town to seek the neurologist’s help in alleviating the sleeping disorder of her eldest brother — that is, the sick man in the home videos at the beginning of the film. Using the femme fatale trope here, Yau seems to be setting up his protagonist for a fall.
Not that Yau has much interest in sustaining the suspense anyway. Noting how the afflicted man is under the spell of “black magic which affects the thalamus,” the scientifically minded Lam somehow decides to pop over to a medium to try and learn of something which happened in his family in the past. What follows is an extended flashback showing how Lam’s father, a translator called Lam Sing (also played by Wong), stays afloat during WWII by working for the Japanese army occupying Hong Kong.
Raised in Japan and speaking perfect Japanese, the docile Lam Sing is soon drafted to serve under Chow Fook (Lam Ka-tung, Trivisa), an unrepentant Chinese collaborationist who co-ordinates the abduction, abuse and assault of local “comfort women” for the Japanese occupiers. His inadvertent involvement in these women’s horrifying ordeals — and, specifically, a soothsayer’s single-eyed daughter (Michelle Wai) — soon leads to a supernatural affliction which his son Sik-ka, in his adult present, seeks to dissect and decode.
Unlike conventional, effective thrillers, all this and more is pretty much revealed around an hour into the film, well before the grand finale. The remaining screening time is utter mayhem, as Yau unleashes complete onscreen anarchy on both Lam Sr. in 1943 and Lam Jr. in 1990. All this contrived violence and gore is perhaps the major selling point of a wobbly narrative dressed up with shock value.
There may be no way for the film’s director and star to regenerate the manic energy and social fury that made The Untold Story and The Ebola Syndrome such genre-benders more than two decades ago. Having moved on from the days of being typecast as a psychopath, Wong falls short in providing depth to either of the two characters he plays here. The same goes for Yau, who struggles to rein in all the sprawling elements — the nondimensional characters, the visceral violence, Brother Hung’s bombastic music — into a tight, coherent movie.
It’s interesting to note how the bulk of the film was shot in the Malaysian city of Penang, with its Chinatown standing in for the old neighborhoods of Hong Kong. Just like those long-gone buildings, maybe the time for a film maudit like The Sleep Curse has already passed.
Production companies: Emperor Film Production Limited, Stellar Mega Films Limited
Cast: Anthony Wong, Michelle Wai, Jojo Goh, Lam Ka-tung
Director: Herman Yau
Screenwriters: Erica Li, Eric Lee
Producers: Albert Lee, Jason Siu, Yao Qinyi
Executive producers: Albert Lee, Yao Qinyi
Director of photography: Joe Chan
Production designer: Chris Pong
Costume designer: Lo Man-yee
Editors: Azrael Chung
Music: Brother Hung
In Cantonese, Japanese and Malay
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