Saturday, November 23, 2013

In short: Tales from the Dark 1 (2013)

Even in the rather sad state it is in right now, Hong Kong cinema can sometimes still offer positive surprises. Case in point is the anthology movie Tales from the Dark 1, which features three independent yet thematically connected horror stories by different directors (Simon Yam Tat-Wah in his directorial debut, Lee Chi-Ngai and Fruit Chan), all based on the stories of Lillian Lee Pik-Wah.

Simon Yam's story sees a half-crazed impoverished man played by Yam finally touching a spirit world he has always been closer to than he expected when he attempts to steal and ransom some urns. Lee Chi-Ngai's second story concerns an aging fortune-teller's (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) last job before his retirement and his attempt to get back together with his wife, shown in a very low key - at least for Hong Kong - comedic manner. Finally, Fruit Chan's story concerns the folk sorcery tradition of villain hitting (a link worth following, I think) and ghostly vengeance.

All three stories are moodily filmed, with Simon Yam showing himself as a director able to really get into a capital-w weird mood, and as the kind of actor you can actually put behind a camera without horrible consequences. Why, he's even rather subtly hiding away certain elements of his plot in plain sight. Everyone behind the camera is clearly well versed in the technological the state of the art of filmmaking without feeling the need to show off.

So far, so competent. What makes Tales from the Dark 1 interesting, particularly as a Hong Kong movie, is how little it tries to follow the expectations its prospective audience will carry towards horror cinema from the city. There's barely a single centipede on screen, the gore is not at all plentiful (only Chan's episode is interested in being gruesome at all), and where Hong Kong horror generally likes to wallow in cynicism and misery, all three stories here are connected by quite a different thematic angle. These are all stories about letting go (even if it means dying, or not committing an act of vengeance), about accepting change and endings, and because they are also all stories that don't pretend life as such is necessarily nice or fair, they are quite a bit more convincing at making their points than you'd expect, generally avoiding a kitschy feelgood vibe while also keeping away from mere cynicism. For a film with so much death and sadness in it, Tales' basic feeling is one of hope.

Even though I've always been a fan of Hong Kong horror's extreme nastiness, I find the approach of Tales from the Dark towards horror and the ghost story a rather enticing one, suggesting that there's still quite a bit of life in the old lady Hong Kong, at least today.

And who'd have thought to ever see a horror movie from the city that finds a ghost stopping her vengeance because she feels compassion?

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