Tales from the Dark Part 1 had its world premiere last Friday at the New York Asian Film Festival. It’s an anthology horror movie containing three shorts films, all of which are adaptations of stories by Lilian Lee. Think less The ABCs of Death and more Three… Extremes and Doomsday Book.
Tales from the Dark Part 1 features the work of Simon Yam (in his directorial debut), Lee Chi-Ngai, and Fruit Chan (who also adapted Lilian Lee’s book Dumplings in Three… Extremes). It would have been a long night, but there’s a masochistic part of me that wishes they did a double bill with Tales from the Dark Part 2, the last half of this Lilian Lee anthology which features films by Lawrence Lau, Teddy Robin, and Gordon Chan.
I don’t know how the two parts would all play as a piece, though like any anthology, there would be ups and downs and odd tonal shifts.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Tales from the Dark Part 1 (迷離夜)
Directors: Simon Yam (“Stolen Goods”), Lee Chi-Ngai (“A Word in the Palm”), and Fruit Chan (“Jing Zhe)
Country: China (Hong Kong)
Release Date: July 11, 2013 (China)
The opening film is “Stolen Goods,” directed by and starring Simon Yam. The story follows a mentally distraught screw-up in his attempts to make money. He can’t do much of anything right and yet doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong. While secluded in his one-room apartment, he yells at two stuffed dolls which are (because it’s a horror movie) more creepy than adorable. When times get desperate, he decides to make money in a way that disrespects the dead. This awakens several ghosts throughout Hong Kong, and they’re upset.
Yam is probably best known for his roles in Johnnie To’s Election and Triad Election, SPL with Donnie Yen, and Exiled. As a first-time director, he shows a flair for unnerving visuals and calculated freakouts. While the ghosts in the other two Tales from the Dark films have a kind of cinematic polish to them, the ghosts of “Stolen Goods” have a quick-and-cheap look, as if the actors went to the local Halloween shop and applied their own fright makeup direct from the tube. This is surprisingly effective since it makes the ghosts appear more necrotic — bits of skin tone are obvious through the layer of white cream.
The best parts of “Stolen Goods” are the ones where Yam is more interested in creating atmosphere and mood than moving an actual plot along. The ghosts are like skipping records or broken industrial machinery, repeating the same lines and actions over and over again. Once the actual plot kicks in, the mood is decidedly less creepy, and the story proceeds in a straightforward (by the end a bit clunky) manner, punctuated by the occasional jump scare.
The middle film is Lee Chi-Ngai “A Word in the Palm,” which blends a ghost story with kooky comedy. Picture a half-serious, half-kidding Scooby-Doo yarn, though sadly without a guest appearance by Don Knotts or The Harlem Globetrotters (if only). I haven’t seen any of Lee Chi-Ngai’s films, so I can’t say if this was to be expected from him. It’s unexpected in this horror anthology since the bookending films are both so serious overall, and yet this goofball in the middle is a welcome change of pace.
“A Word in the Palm” focuses on a fortune teller who can see ghosts (Tony Leung Kar-Fai) and a New Age crystal vendor wearing at least 10 pounds of necklaces and bangles (Kelly Chen). Both of them work at the mall. The fortune teller wants to close up shop so he can spend more time with his wife and musically inclined son, but the appearance of a creepy ghost pulls him back into the game.
The moments of slapstick and the little details of “A Word in the Palm” make it worthwhile, like the constant rustle of beads whenever Chan’s hippy-dippy spiritualist walks around. Her character wears contacts that enlarge her pupils, giving her every action an adorable, cartoon quality. The resolution to the ghost’s dilemma is a little too pat and too obvious, but the coda to the tale plays up the strengths of this middle entry.
Even if it’s imperfectly shaped, my favorite of the bunch is the last film, “Jing Zhe” by Fruit Chan. The short starts light. Siu Yam-Yam plays an elderly woman who makes money as a villain hitter. Strangers on the street pay her money to pray for bad luck on certain people. In turn, the old woman recites rhymes while smacking a photo of the cursed-to-be with a shoe. The first so-called villains we hear about end up revealing the pettiness and passive aggressiveness of the people who hate them. The turn in the story comes when a ghost appears before the old woman and says she’d like to deal with some villains in her life.
“Jing Zhe” lays on the sadness and anger in its final half, like a kind of rejoinder to the first half of the story. Sure, you may have problems with people, but here is a ghost who has a legitimate score to settle with real-life villains who did her wrong. In a lot of ways it’s such a simple switch from low stakes to high stakes and from hoax to hex, but something about Fruit Chan’s presentation sucked me in. This is a revenge story with a ghost, and when the shoe comes down on the faces of the villains, the heel strikes with the righteousness of a gavel.
As with other anthology movies, scoring the whole is a bit difficult. Tales from the Dark Part 1 is enjoyable, though nothing quite hits as hard or scares as much as I hoped. I’m becoming more of a fraidy cat as I get older, but I wasn’t bothered by much in the film. Leaving the theater, I felt content rather than ill at ease. Eventually I hope to see Tales from the Dark Part 2 just to see how the two films compare. Hopefully the second film also has a bit of everything but actually leaves me feeling creeped out in a lingering way.