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Tales From the Dark Part 1
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by Jay Seaver

"Starts the Festival of Hungry Ghosts off right."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The last horror movie I saw that I recall really messing me up was "Dumplings", Fruit Chan's segment of the "Three...Extreme" anthology. After a decade of making movies that have not particularly traveled outside of the various Chinas, he's done another segment for a horror anthology, this first of two adapting stories by "Dumplings" writer Lillian Lee. And while none of the three results here are the same sort of shocker as that one, they do prove to be an entertaining trio of ghost stories.

The release of this movie in Hong Kong coincides with the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, which seems to be in full swing as "Stolen Goods" begins, although it's not clear whether Kwan (Simon Yam) is aware of the ghosts around him. What he does know is that he's been fired from his last two jobs and is in danger of losing his crappy apartment if he doesn't make some money fast, so he hits upon the idea of stealing urns from a nearby columbarium and selling them back to the deceaseds' loved ones. However, he soon finds he may have wound up with more than he bargained for.

In addition to starring, busy character actor Yam (six films in 2013 alone) makes his directorial debut with this short; he's also the only director working directly from a script by Lee rather than adapting her story himself. It's maybe not particularly surprising that it's the least polished of the segments, giving Yam a chance to go to town with a big, broad character but also causing him to flex his directorial muscles a little more than necessary. The story is cut up with the meat of it mostly told in flashback, the music has a lot of the sort of rumbling bass and big clangy noises that put exclamation marks on scares, and the ironic twist is a bit disconnected. It's fun, especially for those with some prior experience with Chinese ghost stories, but there's better to come.

Like "A Word in the Palm". This one features Tony Leung Ka-fai as Mr. Hon, a fortune teller in a local market who can occasionally see ghosts but finds it's not worth the trouble. He's planning to close his shop soon anyway, maybe work part-time in Ms. Lan's crystal emporium. In fact, he refers two visitors to Lan (Kelly Chan) in short succession - the Cheungs, a married couple whose pregnant wife thinks she's seeing ghosts, and Chen Siu-ting (Cherry Ngan), a teenager looking to have her fortune told - before realizing that (a) Mr. Cheung may have swiped the CD of his son's recital and (b) the two visitors may be tied together.

Lee Chi-ngai adapts and directs this one, and it's a lot of fun. There's a classical ghost story with real stakes and tragedy at the base of it, but Lee attacks it with a light touch, selling it in large part based on the platonic chemistry between Leung's reluctant medium and Chen's eager acolyte. They're nice folks who are casual to excited about seeing ghosts, and while this situation is a little more severe than they're used to they're charmingly contemporary and unpretentious in how they go about it. The pair both seem to have fun playing counter to their usually safe on-screen personae; Cherry Ngan is also memorable as the teenage girl whose story is obvious but no less well-told through her acting.

So, finally, comes Fruit Chan's "Jing Zhe", in which the audience meets Old Lady Chu (Susan Shaw, aka Siu Yam-yam), who does "villain beating" by the Canal Road Flyover. It's a bit of witchcraft where she beats the image of her client's enemy with her shoe, more about stress relief than results. Today, a woman is asking Chu to curse her daughter-in-law, but her next customer - a girl (Dada Chan) missing one shoe - has the sort of ashen complexion that should signal trouble by now.

"Jing Zhe" may not be gut-wrenchingly twisted in the way "Dumplings" is, but it turns out to be a delightful little bit of horror that throws a bit of early misdirection at the audience and then has plenty of fun with the question of whether or not someone deserves what's coming. Susan Shaw is perfectly cantankerous as Mrs. Chu, although she pulls it in nicely as she realizes what's going on, while usually-funny sex kitten Dada Chan shifts gears to be coolly malevolent as a ghost with a score to settle. Fruit Chan reveals the backstory quietly but effectively, and then takes a sort of gleeful delight in doling out revenge.

Of the three, "Jing Zhe" is the best segment, but "A Word in the Palm" is not far behind and "Stolen Goods" isn't bad either. As a whole, it's a fun way to celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival, and here's hoping that the second part (released in Hong Kong a month later) lives up to it.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=25313&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/06/13 05:12:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Fruit Chan
  Chi Ngai Lee
  Simon Yam

Written by
  Fruit Chan
  Chi Ngai Lee
  Lillian Lee

Cast
  Yam Yam Siu
  Dada Chan
  Tony Leung Ka-Fai
  Kelly Chan
  Cherry Ngan
  Simon Yam



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