OK, so if you read the last review, the preamble can be quicker. This is the second set of three films, all penned (to some degree) by Lillian Lee, that have the express intention of revitalising Hong Kong Horror Cinema. Also, this one has the CATIII label attached, so I was expecting something a little darker. The first bunch were pretty good, shall we see how the next selection measures up?
“Tales of the Dark 2” opens up with Gordon Chan’s ‘Pillow’. Nurse Ching-yi (Fala Chen) has a big argument with her boyfriend (Gordon Lam), after which he goes missing. Sick with apparent worry, she starts to suffer from insomnia. Taking advice from her Doctor boss, she purchases a new Pillow, which not only brings her sleep, but vivid and sexual dreams about her boyfriend. Of course things are not what they seem – I don’t think it is too spoilerific to say the insomnia is more out of guilt than worry (which is clear from the trailer), and this oneiric visits are actually from a spirit that has somehow inhabited the eponymous pillow.
I have rather mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand I loved the look at feel, the clean and start cinematography, the general idea of the story. I really enjoyed Fala Chen’s performance too – going from jealous girlfriend to washed out insomniac. On the other hand the piece has problems. Firstly, there was the structure. Whilst what is going on is hardly a surprise, I can’t help feeling it was revealed at entirely the wrong time. It either should have been introduced chronologically, or as some kind of final reveal. Both would have added an air of mystery to the reason for Ching-yi’s plight. Then we have the sex scenes, which whilst not actually baring too much flesh, were somewhat explicit in the sense of desire. They felt uncomfortable and really quite false (there’s something that really gnaws at me – people having film sex with their clothes on), and some of the more leery early shots of Chen in her underwear seemed a touch exploitative. Finally we have a somewhat disappointing ending, with Ching-yi’s final fate not only being unrevealed, but her afterlife-based saviour seemed a little too understanding. But on the balance, this was an enjoyable piece.
Next up is Laurence Lau’s ‘Hide and Seek’. Here we have a bunch of kids (played by pretty much unknowns) that go for a sleepover in the empty husk of their old school before it gets demolished. They decide to play a game somewhat akin to the English title, where humans and ghosts attempt to hide from the Ghost Catcher for 15 minutes. However, not only is the old caretaker still on the grounds, but the place is populated with real ghosts, that are a result of the SARS epidemic a few years before.
This one really was the most old-school horror of any across the two movies. And for the record, it was a lot of fun. All the old tricks of creepiness were in play, from sudden bangs to apparitions appearing in and out of shot. Acting was a little variable, but at least all the kids had distinct personalities. I really loved the occasional imagination at play too, with ghosts appearing out of a mural, and forming a secret conga-style line.
Sadly, this one seems to have been badly hampered by the running time. All three of these films clock in at around the 30 minute mark, whereas those in part one were all 10 minutes longer. And this one seems to suffer the most, because it really ends incredibly suddenly. Whilst the final fates are revealed in a strange couple of opening/closing scenes, I felt somewhat short changed that things just stopped at exactly the point they were getting interesting. Not only that, but some of the background story about the SARS epidemic and a potential student/Teacher relation really could have done with a lot more exploration. Saying all that, I was entertained for 30 minutes, and was probably my favourite of the three shorts here.
Finally we have Teddy Robin’s “Black Umbrella”. This one is left to last as it was actually penned my Lillian Lee (as opposed to script supervision or general inspiration). In it, we follow a mysterious man (Robin) traversing the streets late at night in Hong Kong. He encounters rude students, skater gangs, inept crooks and thugs. He despatches them all with a sharp tongue, or by the use of his titular Umbrella. When he comes across Mainland Prostitute Aliza Mo though, things take a turn for the worst. He is entrapped by her, and when he doesn’t succumb to her rather aggressive manner of soliciting, things take a rather bloody turn for the worse.
This one was somewhat interesting, though it was as subtle a a tin of Spam. I enjoyed Robin’s journey through the darker side of Hong Kong, showing that humans can be just as bad as the evil spirits we have been encountering in all the previous shorts. It is visually interesting (although you can see the occasional excess in ‘clever’ shots that so often mar the work of an actor behind the lens), and Robin makes for a charismatic and interesting lead. Less successful is the other side of the story, where Mo’s Prostitute character is all over the place character-wise. I wasn’t sure if she was to be sympathised with, empathised with or that maybe we should merely despise her. I can’t help feeling there was some metatextual social commentary here about Mainland Chinese women also. Sure, she was turning tricks, but her sudden about face in character I found somewhat jarring.
After that, the film descends very quickly into a Charnel House. It is far more grim and bloody as any other the preceding 5 shorts, and again seems to suffer from a too short running time, and to be perfectly honest a little bit of exposition. I could work out what was going on, but things might have been better served if someone spent two sentences explaining it. However, it was far from without merit.
So overall, I can’t say I enjoyed part two as much as I did part one. Two of the stories were severely hampered by the shortened running time. They were certainly more visceral, and had a lot more sexual content (meaning this one is never going to play in Mainland China). Each one had a lot going for it, in terms of performances, ideas and execution, but I could not say that one particularly impressed, or made me wish for them to be expanded into a much longer piece. Kudos to all involved for trying, and managing to bring some real Horror to proceedings, but I think this one gets a lesser recommendation. Plenty to enjoy, but not enough to consider essential. It does however make a big claim for the best Poster of the year!