In my journey to discover Hong Kong cinema outside of the bubble that is 70s-90s action films, I figured it was best to start with some of the movies debuting at the New York Asian Film Festival this year (2023). If there was ever an event that would lead me to creative and interesting new movies from the region, this would be it.
One of the most talked about films making its US premiere at the festival is Mad Fate, a mystery thriller mixed with social commentary about the state of HK’s well-being that also hearkens back to the golden days of HK cinema with regards to production and tonal shifts.
Starting from an interesting premise and stirring so many different genres into the pot, does this sometimes rough and violent film secretly have a deep and optimistic narrative, or is it all a bit heavy-handed and ultimately shallow? Let’s take a look and find out.
Director: Cheang Pou-soi
Release Date: April 20, 2023 (Hong Kong), July 22, 2023 (NYAFF)
Country: Hong Kong
Beginning on an unspecified night in Hong Kong, Mad Fate quickly introduces viewers to its central premise through a rather humorous opening sequence. The Master (Gordon Lam), as he is called, is doing his best to help avert the fate of a local prostitute by having her perform a ritual that will alter her destiny. According to her birth chart and astrological signs, she is set to die within the next few hours as her fate is in a downturn. The Master can prevent that by faking her death and tricking fate into changing course.
As the title of the film would have you guess, this doesn’t happen. A series of unfortunate events, including a sudden downpour, sees the prostitute continuously getting up from the grave she is supposed to be buried in and The Master can’t complete his ritual before his paper talisman burns. As such, the woman returns home after aborting the ceremony and is almost immediately killed by a man in a mask (Peter Chan, referring to only as The Murderer). Fate, it seems, cannot be averted.
When The Master goes to check in on her, delivery driver Siu-tung (Lokman Yeung) becomes fascinated by seeing her body strung up and butchered. It sparks a more sadistic part of his brain and causes him to revert to old, destructive behaviors. Since The Master is so obsessed with fate and trying to help people, he takes Siu-tung under his care in an effort to save the man from succumbing to his pre-determined negative fate.
Right off the bat, Mad Fate makes it clear that within the context of this film, fate is a real thing. While the majority of outsiders that The Master interacts with don’t believe him and some even call him crazy, he seems to understand how the machinations of fate work and can read when people are going to suffer because of it. My knowledge of Chinese mysticism is limited, but I believe most of what The Master is reading is Taoist or Buddhist beliefs. He does utilize certain Taoist items in his quest to prevent negative energies from overtaking his targets.
What Mad Fate nails is its atmosphere. With some suitably dark subject matter, the film is often colored with dark hues and obscene shadows. It can be quite hard to see what is right in front of you, but that plays into the uncertainty that the film’s characters have. They aren’t able to see their fates, even if The Master claims he can, so cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung lights the environments dimly. It could also be to hide some of the CG, which is honestly not great looking. There’s a sequence with a fully digital cat that looks 20 years out of date but isn’t the central focus of the picture.
As far as the basic story goes, Mad Fate kind of runs out of steam before the finale. Clocking in at an hour and 48 minutes, the film jumps back and forth between The Master finding someone, trying to subvert their fate, failing, and then moving on. There is a clever usage of coincidences in this film, wherein The Master or even Siu-tung will happen upon some items that then coincidentally help them along the way. While that would normally be lazy writing, it plays into the central theme of the film.
Director Cheang Pou-soi is noted for his films having biting commentary on current-day Hong Kong and Mad Fate is no exception. While he falls back on the tired trope of using violence against women as a means to explicitly show the decaying state of society, there’s an otherworldliness to Mad Fate that speaks to the anxieties of modern citizens. Even though we’re a few years into the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the scenes in Mad Fate play with very few actors on screen at once. Extras are rare and the city can come off as barren like it has been evacuated.
It’s not hard to see what Pou-soi is going for. After the 2019 protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, and tighter police control befalling the city (and even the world), many citizens in Hong Kong are worried about their fates. Can they, and even we as a global community, conquer our supposed destinies and turn around our fortunes? The film ends with a fairly aspirational tone, so it’s not all gloom and doom for two hours with a swift kick in the ass to send you home.
Getting to that point is fun, for the most part. While Mad Fate generally sticks to the mystery thriller angle, at times it adopts a cat-and-mouse aspect where an older police inspector played by Berg Ng trails Siu-tung in an effort to catch him screwing up. Years prior, this officer caught him mutilating a cat in an alleyway and their fates seem to have become interwoven. Ng doesn’t get too much to do in the film, but he plays the role very cool and calm.
The real standout is Lokman Yeung as the film’s deuteragonist. Hailing from the Cantopop group MIRROR, this is Yeung’s first screen role and he’s already a natural. Shedding the boyband image he is known for, Yeung captures the intensity and declining mental state of his character to a tee. He has an intensity about his performance that keeps you on your toes, especially since his character’s strong desire for murder seems to boil up at random.
Where Mad Fate feels like classic Hong Kong cinema is with regard to its tonal shifts. At times, the movie plays things very straight and there is an almost oppressive amount of violence that can be shocking. Other times, characters are bumbling through their rituals and falling on their asses in a slapstick manner. That juxtaposition of different vibes is reminiscent of golden-era HK comedies and dramas, which weren’t afraid to mix wildly opposing tones against each other.
There are a lot of great touches like that in Mad Fate, but as I said, the story starts to lose steam by the end. There are only so many times you can watch the same scenario play out before it feels like the movie is running on repeat. In some way, I feel like the situations here would have worked much better as an anthology film where different characters tackled their fates in different manners. Cramming it all together, it can sometimes feel listless with where things are going.
Ultimately, though, Mad Fate comes around and delivers a message of hope for people in desperate situations. Summarizing that message would rob the film of its power, so I’ll just say this: life isn’t completely against us. Things are always darkest before the light and whatever hell we are currently mired in will eventually pass. We just need to keep fighting to get there.