“Tales from the Dark Part 1” – 2013 New York Asian Film Festival Review

What do a man down on his luck, a high school swim coach and an elderly “villain hitter” have in common?  In “Tales from the Dark Part 1,” an omnibus of three films based upon horror stories written by Hong Kong author Lillian Lee (most popularly known for her novel and the subsequent film, Farewell My Concubine), these unfortunate souls are haunted by a series of ghosts out for revenge.  Simon Yam (who also takes on the lead role in his segment), Lee Chi Ngai and Fruit Chan each direct one portion of the movie, with varying results.

In the first story, “Stolen Goods,” Yam plays a poor man who can’t seem to hold down a job.  He lives in a shabby room stuffed with, oddly enough, salvaged children’s toys, including two dolls that he rants to daily about his troubles.  Little does he know, the spirits of two little girls embody those dolls, and one of them begins to follow him around.  As if that were not enough, the real problems begin when, after being fired yet again, he decides to become a grave robber and steal the urns of ashes of the deceased to hold for ransom.  Let the hauntings begin.

Of the three, “Stolen Goods” adheres the most to the traditional Hong Kong horror movie aesthetic.  The atmospheric music, shots of lurking ghosts with long black hair and dark mood in almost every scene will be familiar to those who are aficionados of the genre.  This does not necessarily make this story boring, however, as suspense is held throughout, and it was a pleasant surprise to see veteran actor Lam Suet, albeit as a gluttonous spirit.  Some loose ends may have been lost in translation from Lee’s original words to the screen, such as why the protagonist has the toys in his room in the first place, but nothing was too jarring for the viewer to enjoy the story.

The second story in the movie, “A Word in the Palm” directed by Lee Chi Ngai, has a markedly different feel from the first.  Tony Leung Kar-fai stars as Mr. Ho, a fortune teller who unfortunately sees ghosts as a result of a childhood fever.  One day, as he sits in a diner trying to reconcile with his wife, he sees the dripping, muddy spirit of a teenage girl (Cherry Ngan) walk in and sit down at the booth adjoining his.  Disturbed, he does not expect to see her again, until she shows up at his shop in the wake of a high school swim coach and his pregnant wife, who complains of the scent of seawater following her wherever she goes.

Humorous elements fill this segment, keeping the tone light despite the fact that it is a horror story about a drowned girl seeking revenge from the afterlife.  Kelly Chen plays Lan, a loopy mystic who owns the crystal shop next door to Mr. Ho’s fortune telling outpost.  Her girlish demeanor exasperates Mr. Ho, but even he is eventually charmed by her earnestness at wanting to help on this ghost case.  Leung’s performance is also spot-on – he keeps his character’s stern demeanor even during the wackiest of moments.

The last story in this trio, “Jing Zhe” (direct by Fruit Chan), leaves a bittersweet, melancholy taste.  Named after the Chinese calendar date when all of creation, including various bad spirits, are awakened by a loud burst of thunder, the tale centers around a villain hitter (played by Siu Yam-yam) who sits under the Canal Road Flyover in Hong Kong to practice her craft of “hitting villains” for people who want to wish ill will on their enemies.  On the night of Jing Zhe, a spectral young woman (Dada Chan) wearing only one sneaker comes to her and requests to beat the paper representations of four people with the symbolic slipper paddle.  While the ghost takes out her anger and sadness on the sheets of paper, the old woman slowly realizes who those people are supposed to be, as well as her own role in the ghost’s story.

“Jing Zhe” has the most emotional depth of the three stories, conveyed primarily through the resolute determination in Chan’s eyes.  You can feel the anger emanating from her character, regardless of the sickly green glow that she already gives off as a ghost.  There are gory and shocking moments that can make you jump in your seat, if only because you are already wound up from the weight of emotion as the ghost’s story falls into place.  It was unnecessary to include a side story of a wealthy woman seeking revenge on her husband’s mistress and her daughter-in-law, as it diluted the focus of “Jing Zhe.”  The only additional value of the prissy tai tai was to explain the tradition of villain hitting through reading a flyer given to her when she visits the villain hitter herself.

The world premiere of “Tales from the Dark Part 1” opened the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.  “Tales from the Dark Part 2,” featuring an additional three stories, each directed by Teddy Robin, Gordon Chan and Lawrence Lau, will be released later in Summer 2013.