Tales From the Dark 2: Film Review

"Tales From the Dark 2"
Three half-hour horror shorts attain uneven levels of scary moments, with Lawrence Lau’s old-school shock-and-awe approach coming out tops.

The second installment of the Hong Kong horror-film portmanteau series features a nurse spellbound by a cursed pillow, students romping through a haunted school and a deadly encounter between a mysterious man and a prostitute.

Opening in Hong Kong a fortnight prior to the traditional "ghost festival," Tales From The Dark 2 has emerged as a marked improvement from the previous installment of a series designed, so said the film’s producers, to reinvigorate the horror genre which the city’s filmmakers claimed as their own in the 1980s and 1990s.

Casting aside the comedic elements which blotted the first entry released last month, veteran directors Gordon Chan, Lawrence Lau and Teddy Robin have produced films which provide more shocks, jolts and intrigue – but sometimes not to the expected effect. With a release in mainland China highly unlikely – ghosts and sex are no-go areas in the country – the film, which bows in Hong Kong on Aug. 8, might see its opening possibilities mostly in Southeast Asia or Asian-themed festivals.

With all three stories on show here based on premises concocted by Lillian Lee – the renowned local author who also wrote Chen Kaige’s Palme d’Or winner Farewell My Concubine – it’s hardly a surprise that they each share a similar theme: the one unifying message being how the paranormal is merely the projection of an individual’s fear and anxiety, and that – as a line in the film goes – "Satan sometimes comes disguised in human form." It’s perhaps an irony that the most successful of the half-hour shorts featured in Tales From The Dark 2 is the one that rekindles old-school horror-film movies, with the least impressive being the one which attempts to expose men (and the odd woman) as a more probable source of evil.

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Chan’s Pillow, which kickstarts the film, is neither: one of the most versatile (and thoughtful) mainstream filmmakers of his generation, Chan has audaciously situated his contribution to Tales From The Dark with something mostly unfolding in clinical, brightly-lit surroundings. At the center of things is Ching-yi (Fala Chen), a nurse who struggles to get any sleep after the disappearance of her boyfriend (Lam Ka-tung) following a row between the pair; it was only with the purchase of a medical pillow that she could finally doze off – only to find herself increasingly drawn to the uninhibited sex she has with her disappeared partner in her dreams.

Somehow, the film’s trailers and domestic marketing campaigns have already revealed the twist in Pillow; not that Chan has tried that hard to conceal this anyway, given how flashbacks have allowed uninitiated viewers the reason of Ching-yi’s insomnia quite early in the proceedings. In fact, what undermines this segment is exactly how the story is made to unfold: given how a colleague has already suggested Ching-yi’s sleeplessness as stemming from mental problems, Chan could have amplified the nurse’s skewed emotional state, instilling in her a sense of self-denial which could suggest possibilities of blocked-off dark personality traits even within the most banal of individuals.

And while Chan veers towards the lyrical by having his protagonist engaging with her inner self in dreams, Robin’s Black Umbrella – which concludes Tales from the Dark 2 – is a dense spiral into a real world shaped as a horrible nightmare, one filled with crude street punks, violent thugs and distressed men who spit at the good Samaritans who save them.

Perhaps revisiting the premise of his 1980s record Spaceman – in which Robin, one of the first rock’n’rollers in Hong Kong, sang about the world from the perspective of an extra-terrestrial – the musician-actor-director plays a brolly-wielding, shades-wearing man who criss-crosses Hong Kong’s nocturnal landscape, sermonizing youngsters about sin and fending off robbers and felons. His journey is interwoven by glimpses into the life of a prostitute (Aliza Mo), who speaks of the pitfalls of her profession and her dismay of having to ply the skin trade so as to eke out a living.

Somehow the pair’s paths cross – and it’s the moment where Black Umbrella begins to flounder, as the two characters’ previously established persona crumbles, with one’s unscrupulous attitudes leading to a harrowing (and inexplicably) gory end. While shaped as the grand finale of the film and the Tales diptych – in contrast to the advisory role she played in the writing process for the other entries, Lee herself penned the script for Robin's segment – Black Umbrella ends up a convoluted, self-conflicting thud, with Mo’s baring of flesh rendered more questionable than a query of the sorry state of her life.

Still, it’s perhaps apt that a film aimed at revisiting the glories of the horror genre from yesteryear attains its high with the tried-and-trusted old-school knacks of scaring people. Lau’s Hide and Seek follows a group of teenagers revisiting the school they used to study in; driven by a mix of nostalgia and bravado, they play the titular game – with those assigned roles of "humans" and "ghosts" trying to evade the "ghostcatcher" – and are soon seen mingling with the spirits of teachers and students who perished in the Sars epidemic at the same year the characters graduated and left for junior high school.

Lau’s entry, which stands at the middle of the three-parter, is not without flaws – the device of framing the proceedings as a flashback actually punches the narrative with a big loophole, and Mathew Tang’s screenplay seemed to have been abruptly cut short, leaving the nearly-inevitable demise of the protagonists unexplained – but Hide and Seek could boast of having established the right ambience and deployed the right horror-film tropes.

To its credit, Lau has also managed to arm his young characters with matching traits and also electronic devices which actually helps in driving the story forward and providing some of the visual trickery -- the mischievous toy who gets toyed with. He might not have reinvented the genre and unearthed new markers per se – and his entry is actually the least philosophical of the lot – but at least Hide and Seek showcases an effort to re-engage with the sensation of scaring people.

Uneven as Tales From The Dark 2 might be – and the same could be said for its previous installment, too – it’s still a laudable point at which the Hong Kong film industry tries to rediscover its identity and its way forward.

Production Companies: Edko Films and Movie Addict Productions

Cast: Fala Chen, Lam Ka-tung (Pillow); Chan Fat-kuk, Sham Ka-ki (Hide and Seek); Teddy Robin, Aliza Mo (Black Umbrella)

Directors: Gordon Chan (Pillow), Lawrence Lau (Hide and Seek), Teddy Robin (Black Umbrella)

Screenwriter: Gordon Chan (Pillow), Mathew Tang (Hide and Seek), Lillian Lee (Black Umbrella), based on stories by Lillian Lee

Producers: Bill Kong and Mathew Tang

Director of photography: Chan Chi-ying, Wade Muller, Jason Kwan

Production designer: Yee Chung-man, Pater Wong

Music: Kenji Kawai

Editor: Wenders Li, Lawrence Lau, Chan Ki-hop

International Sales: Edko Films

In Cantonese and Putonghua

Running time 88 minutes


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