This year TheYoungFolks is proud to cover the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) which seeks to spotlight contemporary and recent Asian filmmaking. Additional information, screening schedules, and contact information for the festival can be found HERE. We continue today with our third roundup. Our other roundups can be found HERE.
KEEPER OF DARKNESS
If the producers of Nick Cheung’s Keeper of Darkness have any sense, they’d realize that they have the makings of an impressive franchise on their hands. The film has a high concept, tone-warping premise that could potentially become as successful as the Mr. Vampire series: a gangster exorcist with a ghost girlfriend. Key to its success is Cheung’s performance as Fatt, a world-weary Triad member who has been able to see and communicate with ghosts since childhood. Unlike other movie exorcists, Fatt is comically nonplussed by otherworldly shenanigans. His main method of exorcism involves physically beating the spirits out of their victims—in one scene he casually uses jumper cables on a possessed young woman’s head. But in this world only victims of violent crimes—murder or suicide—linger as ghosts. So each exorcism also necessitates Fatt’s exploration of their tragic backstories and the bringing of their spirits to peace. Cheung’s control of tone is remarkable, shifting from hilarious to bittersweet to horrifying within the space of just a few scenes. The heart of the film is Cherr, a young female ghost who befriended Fatt as a child after he and his mother unwittingly moved into the apartment where she killed herself. We watch as she helps Fatt grow up, navigate a turbulent adolescence, and come into his own as an exorcist. It’s a surprisingly sweet love story that doubles as a wonderful narrative decongestant. Unlike their Western counterparts, these Chinese ghosts are not tied down to a single location. So Cherr acts as Fatt’s partner in the next life: investigating other ghosts, scouting out haunted locations, even guiding him to the afterlife when he has to interrogate a powerful demon. The film has two unfortunate problems. First, it aspires to the horror genre but has mixed results inspiring fear. While reliably creepy—see the scenes where Fatt walks through alleyways and abandoned buildings infested with hosts of the screaming dead—there are few scenes that legitimately frighten. The most shocking scenes are hobbled with mediocre CGI and special effects. One flashback scene where a woman gets burned to death in an apartment fire looks like they added the flames in with an iPhone app. Second, the film runs about 15-20 minutes longer than it should. After vanquishing the main villain, Fatt putters around in an ill-conceived love triangle. It’s completely unnecessary and doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. I do hope they make more of these movies, if only so we can get one that doesn’t trip over its own legs at the finale.
If Keeper of Darkness felt like the first film in a franchise, Chung Lee’s The Laundryman feels like an entire season of television crammed into 110 minutes. The film is about an unnamed hitman who works for a mysterious woman named A-gu (Sui Tang) who runs an assassination service disguised as a laundry shop. He gets his assignment, kills his mark, and brings them back to the plant where the bodies are destroyed with heavy-duty industrial equipment. However the hitman has begun being haunted by the ghosts of his victims, the specters invading his house and silently following him wherever he goes. He enlists a spunky psychic named Lin (Wan Qian) to help him get rid of his infestation. Most of the film follows the two of them running around Taiwan and setting the wandering souls to rest. See, the ghosts aren’t particularly mad at him; they want revenge on whoever ordered their hits in the first place. Since A-gu isn’t forthcoming with the information, they have to figure out the clients themselves. Cheung juxtaposes the tragedy surrounding the assassinations with hit-or-miss comedy. One early scene where the hitman dresses in drag to sneak up on a perverted target misfires when the target grabs him from behind, straps him to a table, and begins to rape him. Cultural differences be damned: I will never find sexual assault funny. But other gags are more successful, such as one scene where the hitman finds himself suddenly surrounded by about a dozen half-naked male ghosts lounging around his room like it was a sauna. Qian is an absolute delight, stealing the movie with her sharp charisma and increasingly panicked performance as the hitman pulls her back into his life over and over again. But as their episodic investigations continue, a greater conspiracy begins to reveal itself. It turns out all the clients were approached first by A-gu, not the other way around. There seems to be some connection between A-gu, the hitman, and a mysterious female ghost who has haunted him for years. The eventual revelation of their connection feels hollow and incomplete. It suggests a grand plan reaching back decades but refuses to clarify the motivations that inspired it. Ultimately, I feel a serialized format would have benefited The Laundryman better than a single film. The joy in watching it comes from the chemistry between the hitman and Qian and the backstories behind each assassination. The Laundryman left me wanting more of both instead of the misguided finale.
But despite my complaints toward Keeper of Darkness and The Laundryman, I would gladly watch both of those films several more times than submit myself once more to Cheng Wei-hao’s The Tag-Along. According to the NYAFF, it was one of “the most popular horror films in Taiwanese history.” I hope that’s not true. Taiwan deserves better than this unfocused, poorly thought out, mess of a movie. Supposedly inspired by a real life viral video of a young girl, dressed in red, following a group of mountain hikers shortly before a terrible accident—a claim I’ll take at face value since it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to google search the phrase “videos of young Chinese girls”—the film indulges in that most beloved, reliable, and exhausted of horror clichés: Creepy Little Girls. This time around the Creepy Little Girl du jour is a “mosien,” a creature defined by an opening title card as “a ghost that appears as a monkey or a child. Taking advantage of one’s sense of guilt, it eats up one’s mind…” But beyond her Creepy Little Girl shtick, the mosien doesn’t really have much in her spookiness arsenal. She likes to run around just out of eyeshot, whispering her victims names before turning electrical equipment on and off or messing with open windows. She’s also a big fan of fake-out dreams; there are almost as many moments of characters suddenly waking up out of nightmares as there are in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). For reasons which are never fully explained, the mosien decides to prey on a small family: an elderly, neglected grandmother; her ungrateful, workaholic grandson; his long-time girlfriend who seems unusually repulsed by the idea of marriage. Unable to choose a main character, the film stumbles between all three as the mosien picks them off one by one. Finally the narrative lands on the girlfriend, centering on her for the last third of the film, where she travels into the mountains to directly face the mosien and rescue her man. The film begins to suggest that the mosien might be a manifestation of her guilt over a child she lost (or in all likelihood within the context of the story, aborted), but it all fails to add up. If the mosien was after her from the beginning, why didn’t it just attack her? Why did it spend an entire movie messing with other people, some of whom aren’t even related to her? The shoehorned commentary doesn’t redeem the film from its own lack of originality.