'Hungry Ghost Ritual' ('Yu Lan Sun Gung'): Film Review

Sundream Motion Pictures
An earnest but overstuffed spine-tingler with too many dangling leads and well-trodden tropes.

Hong Kong star Nick Cheung wades into the horror genre in his first directorial effort.

The tacky vibe radiating from the title of Hong Kong actor Nick Cheung's directorial debut is unfortunate: while not exactly drenched with innovation, Hungry Ghost Ritual — or simply Ghost Rituals, as the film is marketed internationally - isn't exactly gaudy, over-the-top schlock. Cheung (star of actioners like UnbeatableThe White Storm and The Demon Within) and his producer-screenwriter Adrian Teh has certainly aimed higher than that, what with a mix of Chinese traditional rites with Western horror-film devices and spiced up with a surprising smattering of Wong Kar-wai-influenced scenes.

Cheung's trials here are hardly laden with errors, but Hungry Ghost Ritual is simply sinking with these replications of well-trodden tropes, weighed down by a plot with just one too many red herring, and uneven performances from its cast. Cheung's earnestness — in both his directing and also in his turn in the leading role - salvages the film from spiraling into the banal, and the modest-budgeted Malaysian-Hong Kong production should be able to recoup its budget in Asian markets before making its way into home entertainment systems abroad.

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The film's major attraction for Asia-oriented international audiences would probably its setting of paranormal goings-on among white face-painted, elaborate costumed performers in a Cantonese Opera troupe. It's not exactly an original premise, mind, as the Hong Kong film Demi-Haunted has milked an effective comedic thriller out of this eerie juxtaposition in 2002. It's up to Curran Pang to take centerstage with his editing (of footage nearly entirely shot in Malaysia) is key to the slow-burning energy of films such as Infernal Affairs or the (unrelated) Pang Brothers' mostly direly-written scary movies.

It's all about patience, rather than quick shocks, as lead character Zong-hua (played by Nick Cheung himself) slowly feels his way into taking over the performance ensemble established by his ailing father Zong-tian (Lam Wai). Having cut himself off from home (and his family business) for a decade while pursuing an ill-fated business venture in China, Zong-hua is viewed with contempt by his feisty step-sister Jing-jing (Singaporean TV actress Cathryn Lee) and mistrust by nearly everyone in the troupe. The only confidant he could find is Xiao-yan (Annie Liu), whose willingness to show him the ropes somehow goes to an intimate extreme after a few drinks too far.

Xiao-yan's non-acknowledgement of that night of passion, however, leads to Zong-hua finally sensing something wrong - and adding to that is Jing-jing's abrupt volte-face in agreeing to learn the family trade, the revelations of troubled pasts among the performers and also the venue they are slated to deliver a performance for the Yu Lan ghost festival. Then there's Zong-hua's own checkered past in China returning to haunt him and his father - and an ageing chanteuse (Carrie Ng) in another troupe who, in a thread seemingly parallel and independent of Zong-hua's, is losing ground to a young, go-getting starlet.

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Clocking in at just 82 minutes, Hungry Ghost Ritual is as overstuffed as even the briefest description of its plot - and perhaps a bit too greedy (or unsure) for their own good, Cheung and Teh have to make time to pack in nods to Paranormal Activity and In the Mood for Love. While not exactly very jarring, all this is eventually apropos to not much as the multitude of loose threads are soon cast aside for a convenient (but not exactly convincing) family-revenge narrative.

For all its hectic ado about a sprawling, overwritten screenplay, Cheung and veterans Lam and Ng deliver understated performances. Lee's stuttering Cantonese and two-note turn - rebellious-kid and possessed-waif with nothing in between - is a distraction, and the much more experienced Liu couldn't keep pace with the more internalized display warranted by this kind of paranormal thriller.

This Asia-pudding of a story and a company of actors might have proved to be the undoing in Cheung's first attempt as a director, and his competence - and perhaps audacity, given he's never starred in a horror film in his career before - in tackling this genre piece might be better served the next time with a more fully-formed narrative and cast.

Venue: Public screening, Hong Kong (opens July 10)

Production companies: Asia Tropical Films in a co-presentation with Sundream Motion Pictures

Cast: Nick Cheung, Annie Liu, Lam Wai, Cathryn Lee, Carrie Ng

Director: Nick Cheung

Screenwriter: Adrian Teh

Producer: Stephen Ng, Tee Yee Peng, Lim Yit Aun, Lim Kim Sow, David Khoo

Executive producer: Adrian Teh, Shirley Yung

Director of photography: Suen Wing-cheung

Production designer: Too Wen Huei

Editors: Curran Pang

Music: Origin Kampanee

International Sales: Darclight

In Cantonese

No rating; 82 minutes