Tales from the Dark 1: Film Review

"Tales from the Dark 1."
A typically hit and miss anthology that starts weak but finishes strong.

Hong Kong’s biggest stars and most prominent filmmakers collaborate on a horror anthology based on "Farewell My Concubine" writer Lilian Lee’s novels.

The ghosts that quite literally haunt us are the subjects of the trilogy of shorts in the horror anthology Tales from the Dark 1, a mostly engaging film that harkens back to the glory days of Hong Kong horror in the 1980s.

Anthologies are by definition hit and miss endeavors and often swing wildly in quality from one segment to the next. That’s exactly what happens here, except the producers have wisely managed to bottom load the film so that sitting through the first entry eventually pays off. Based on popular writer Lilian Lee’s series of novels, this first adaptation begins with its weakest link by actor turned director Simon Yam and finishes with one-time indie darling Fruit Chan -- experienced in anthology horror from Three: Extremes.

A second installment is scheduled for release in Hong Kong in August featuring entries by Gordon Chan (Fist of Legend, Beast Cops), Lawrence Lau (Queen of Temple Street, Lee Rock) and actor Teddy Robin (Gallants) and if it’s halfway as entertaining as the first part, prospects for genre festival double bills are strong. Moderate box office success should come in Hong Kong, where the cast and filmmakers are household names.

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In “Stolen Goods” a frequently unemployed oddball, Kwan (Yam), who is able to see the dead walking around his neighborhood, resorts robbing graves and holding the urns and ashes for ransom to make rent. He meets his match when the supposed cousin of one of his victims agrees to pay. Next up, Lee Chi-ngai’s “A Word in the Palm” is the outright funniest entry of the three. New-agey spiritualist Lan (Kelly Chen) and the reluctant ghost-seer Hon (Tony Leung, Cold War) team up to help the scorned Siu-ting (Cherry Ngan) find peace in the afterlife. Trouble is Lan’s something of a crackpot and Hon is desperate to prove to his wife he’s over the whole ghost thing in order to see his son more. Finally, Fruit Chan’s “Jing Zhe” is the strongest entry and is recognizable as Chan’s work from the first few grimy frames. Veteran actress Susan Siu stars as Chu, a streetside villain basher -- she’ll smack a paper effigy of customer nemeses and toss out a few choice words for a fee -- who’s compelled to look at her own life choices when the ghost of a teenaged girl (Dada Chan) becomes the last customer of the night.

When Tales 1 kicks off with Yam’s hammy, bug-eyed shenanigans (initially he appears to be channeling his classic Dr. Lamb performance) it doesn’t bode well for the remaining hour. Yam’s forced, contrived images try really hard to convey discombobulated eeriness but mostly just succeed in confusion. His visions (the obese ghost that can’t stop eating even though he’s full, two little girls locked out of their home among others) are dropped into scenes free of context and completely disconnected from the ransom story. It ends exactly as expected and not a moment too soon. Lee’s “Palm” is much better, and a lot of the credit must go to Chen (who knew she was funny?) and Leung as the ghostbusters, and young actress Ngan. Though it flails tonally near the end, Lee does a nice job with the comedy-horror and draws out performances that lift it above its material. Chan, working with his regular DOP Lam Wah-chuen, provides the gore (and he does get creative) in the duo’s typically grotty urban landscape. Chan uses the conventions of horror the way they’re best used -- to explore larger issues, here being guilt, responsibility, vengeance and atonement, and Siu is fantastic as the ornery street hawker without a heart of gold.

Producer: Bill Kong, Matthew Tang
Director: Simon Yam, Lee Chi-ngai, Fruit Chan
Cast: Simon Yam, Tony Leung, Kelly Chen, Susan Siu, Dada Chan, Cherry Ngan, Maggie Siu, Felix Lok
Screenwriter: Lilian Lee, Lee Chi-ngai, Fruit Chan, based on the books by Lilian Lee
Executive producer: Bill Kong, Matthew Tang
Director of Photography: Jason Kwan, Wade Muller, Lam Wah-chuen
Production Designer: Kenneth Yee
Music: Kenji Kawai
Costume designer: Shirley Chan
Editor: Kwong Chi-leung, Lee Chi-ngai, Fruit Chan

No rating, 112 minutes