Film Review: Rule Number One

Bottom Line: A mystery-cum-horror thick with atmospherics though thin on scares

Venue: Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (Star TV / Media Corp. Raintree Pictures/Boku Films)

BUCHON, South Korea -- In "Rule Number One," a detective-horror shot in Hong Kong, Singaporean director Kelvin Tong ("The Maid," "Love Story") displays his usual flare for sharp visuals and cinematic ambience. The story takes the form of an omnibus of supernatural encounters, echoing the paranormal chills of "The X-Files," but is later subsumed by a plot that borrows conspicuously from films about possession such as "The Exorcist" and J-horror based on viral curses like "The Ring," "One Missed Call" and "The Suicide Song."

There's no new gimmick to startle audiences, but pairing of Hong Kong stars Ekin Cheng and Shawn Yue exudes slow-burning charisma that keeps the film engaging. The film could attract moderate attention in Asia, thanks to the two leads' award-winning performances (Best Actors, PiFan's Puchon Choice Award,) and Tong's unconventional casting of supporting roles.

Sergeant Lee Kwok Keung (Shawn Yue) is demoted to the Miscellaneous Affairs Department after attributing the death of a criminal to a ghost in his report. He becomes partners in ghost-busting with Wong (Ekin Cheng), his eccentric chief. Wong reiterates staff "Rule No. 1" -- "There are no ghosts" (a reference to '60s Cantonese horror which habitually ends with this empiricist line). Yet they inhabit a world of ghosts who use humans as transient vessels, possessing them just by body contact. This keeps one guessing about who's being possessed, but makes the climax look like the kiddy's game of Tag.

With a foreboding voice-over harping on about "gray areas," the final twist won't cause gasps of surprise. Image design hasn't got over cliches of ghouls with long hair or pupil-less eyes, but starkly contrasted lighting and a gray-black color scheme make ordinary interiors subtly menacing. Both score and sound are tastefully evocative, definitely a cut above common groaning, bass-heavy sound effects slapped onto standard Asian horrors.

Ekin Cheng is cool as a cucumber in a trench coat. His romantic liaisons, notably the sensuous tango scenes first with an inflated rubber dinosaur, then with his ex-wife, provide a moving, emotional undertow that makes "Rule" more than just a genre film.

Cast: Ekin Cheng, Shawn Yue, Fiona Xie, Stephanie Che. Screenwriter-director: Kelvin Tong. Based on an idea by: John Tower, Kelvin Tong. Producer: Peter Poon. Director of Photography: Venus Keung. Music: Joe Ng, Alex Oh. Costume designer: Liu Fung Shan. Editor: Azreal Chung. Sales: Fortune Star Entertainment, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. No rating, 93 minutes.