The Midnight After: Berlin Review

Courtesy of Fortissimo Films
"The Midnight After"
The chaotic transition of Hong Kong is fodder for suspense- and scare-free horror in this tiresome comic strip of urban cataclysm.

Seventeen random souls are thrown together in a public transport vehicle that somehow gets spared when the rest of humanity vanishes in Fruit Chan’s genre blender.

Fruit Chan made his name as a director with a series of provocative independent films in the late 1990s that commented on the handover of Hong Kong sovereignty to China. But he stumbles with The Midnight After, an indigestible post-apocalyptic stir-fry that sacrifices any sociopolitical allegory about reunified Hong Kong and its place in 21st century Asia to wild tonal inconsistency and clumsy genre mishmash. Adapted from a popular novel about the last 17 people in a suddenly vacated city inhabited by millions, this toxic mess works neither as broad satirical comedy nor as sci-fi horror, which are the two stylistic camps where it loiters longest.

The source material, Lost on a Red Minibus to Tai Po, originated as serialized web fiction by an anonymous writer who goes by the pen name Pizza, before being published as a novel in 2012. The appearance of the word “lost” in the title may be a nod to the ABC television series of that name, given that the characters find themselves in an alternate universe full of malevolent threats and disorienting dreams of pre-disaster life, seemingly with an inexplicable time lapse. But the mysteries as depicted here are too convoluted to invite much scrutiny.

Chan and cinematographer Lam Wah-tsuen effectively capture the human cacophony of one of the world’s most densely populated areas in a fast-motion opening that provides a quick glimpse of the key characters in frenetically cut establishing scenes.

A slobby loudmouth gambler (Lam Suet) gets a late-night call to fill in for a minibus driver friend on a route to Tai Po, a former market town turned new community. His passengers are played by a mix of Chan regulars, veteran Hong Kong actors and new-generation stars. The group includes a cokehead, a bickering married couple, a blowhard failed gangster, a fortune-telling insurance broker, a tech expert, a vintage vinyl dealer, an incognito thief, a bottle-blond pretty boy stood up by his girlfriend, a matching female counterpart and a handful of college students.

The first bad omen is an accident they pass in which a couple that almost boarded the bus has been killed. But the major mind-bender occurs when they travel through a tunnel and all the other traffic vanishes, emerging on the other side to find a ghost town. Phone signals are dead, Internet activity has frozen, and as panic mounts among the passengers, the fortune-teller (Kara Hui) starts spouting theories about having entered the Photon Belt, where their destinies are now intertwined.

The loss of spirituality, the escalation of economic instability, the squandering of cultural wealth, the emergence of a drug-addled “zombie” race, disillusionment with the political system, distrust of technology and depersonalization of society are among the countless half-baked themes touched upon as people start combusting or crumbling like rocks. Not to mention raping and maiming.

The chief clues about their limbo come from an unknown caller’s coded message that links to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” a song then heard multiple times, evoking space travel and imperiled isolation; and the appearance of a young Japanese man in a gas mask, who summons associations with the SARS epidemic and makes oblique references to the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. But rather than solving the enigma, the film is more concerned with acknowledging all that’s at risk of being lost in the relentless march forward, suggesting not just traditional laws and ethics but ultimately humanity itself.

With a more controlled director at the helm, that strand might have acquired some poignancy. But The Midnight After is all over the place, lurching from goofball comedy to pulpy horror to mawkish melodrama as young leads Wong You-nam and Janice Man mentally revisit their romances. Even with a fuller understanding of all the local references, this would doubtless still be an overblown, noisy, curiously inept movie from a filmmaker who shows only fleeting command of the material.

Early on, one of the minibus passengers warns that splitting up is how folks get killed in horror movies, while later, somebody remarks that Hong Kong doesn’t do sci-fi. But there’s precious little wit in the film’s attempt to upend genre conventions. The most interesting thing about it is seeing vast expanses of the digitally evacuated city, an image that says a lot more than any of the yappy characters.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)

Production companies: The Midnight After Film Production, One Ninety Films Co.

Cast: Wong You-nam, Janice Man, Simon Yam, Kara Hui, Chui Tien-you, Lam Suet, Cheuk Wan-chi, Lee Sheung-ching, Sam Lee, Cherry Ngan, Melodee Mak, Jan Curious, Ronny Yuen, Kelvin Chan, Endy Chow

Director: Fruit Chan

Screenwriters: Chan Fai-hung, Kong Ho-yan, Fruit Chan, based on the novel “Lost on a Red Minibus to Taipo,” by Pizza

Producer: Amy Chin

Executive producer: Winnie Tsang, Fruit Chan

Director of photography: Lam Wah-tsuen

Production designer: Andrew Wong

Music: Ellen Loo, Veronica Lee

Costume designer: Phoebe Wong

Editors: TinSupFat, ToTo

Sales: Fortissimo Films

No rating, 123 minutes