Hungry Ghost Ritual

It is that time of year again. What? Christmas already I hear you all cry? Don’t fear, this is only tangental seasonal fear, for it is time for one of the real pleasures of writing this blog. Yep, it’s time for everyones favourite Catgirl to join me to look at a movie again. Long term readers know how this works – you basically get two reviews for the price of one, with added interjections. Think of it a bit like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones covering a song by Perfume. Anyway, that’s a metaphor stretch way too far, so let me officially welcome Miyuki back and let’s get underway with the movie. I actually chose this one, but I was pandering to my guest by picking a Ghost Story. Because it really is nearly Christmas and that’s the perfect time right?

My pleasure as always to share my time and thoughts with you! Just the perfect early Christmas present. But next time out we’ll definitely have to draw something a bit more to your tastes… 🙂

hungry-ghost-ritual-nick-cheung-annie-liuSo, in “Hungry Ghost Ritual” we see the return of Zong Hua (Nick Cheung, who also first time directs) to the bosom of his family in Malaysia. Seemingly he has been estranged from his father and half-sister ever since he went to the Mainland to make it big. Well that didn’t work out too well in either a business or a relationship sense, so now he is thrust back into an environment her really isn’t too comfortable in. His father runs a Cantonese Opera Troupe, of which it seems neither he nor his half-sibling Jing-jng have an awful lot of interest, but when the sister’s antics bring on a heart attack in the old man, Zong Hua is asked to take control. The troupe really are not very happy with this and work together to undermine him at every turn, and even more confusing is the lead actress Xiu Yin, who is either trying to sleep with him or gives him the coldest of shoulders. His sister suddenly takes in interest in acting (and is rather too good at it), and all sorts of spooky event start to take place. Issues both temporal and supernatural are starting to clash, and Zong Hua really doesn’t have the knowledge to deal with it

I do wish they had gone a bit more into the background behind Zong Hua’s desires to break from his family traditions and given his failures in China more screen time. As they stood, they asked more questions than they answered, particularly the death of his mother and the way he and Jing-jing seemed so at odds. Part of the story felt unfinished without that foundation being more developed.

Meanwhile, in another movie, Carrie Ng plays the lead actress in another Cantonese Opera Troupe.

Definitely. It’s exactly my thought as well. The two different eras in the story never seemed to mesh together very well. The present story didn’t evoke any parallels with that past one and I can honestly say I didn’t see where  the spirits would have felt any connection to these modern characters… Usually this kind of plot works best when some present day events reawaken those old tragedies by being so darn close that it precipitates some kind of harmonic vibe. I didn’t get that feeling here. It’s done more in a forced way that seemed more like those ghosts bullying their way into a replay.

So yeah. I really was looking forward to this, despite some fairly middling reviews, because I just love Nick Cheung. The guy has been around an age, initially starring in a bunch of questionable Wong Jing comedies, working up to award winning roles in Johnnie To films, and eventually becoming the main draw in Dante Lam’s winning run of films from “The Beast Stalker”. Basically he plays a great bad guy, and has the ability to be the worthwhile performance in movies both great and crap. So I think the guy has earned the right to turn his hand at directing. Bonus points too for not just turning his first lens at the horror genre, but for going to Malaysia to make it, where he can avoid all the nonsense about the supernatural that limits any Mainland effort.

Yep. Really wish the Mainland censors would drop their objections to supernatural plots and stories for newer films. Seems the only way around it is to do “remakes” of older films, and to my way of thinking, that’s been somewhat of a dismal failure with the last few big budget efforts.

It is sad to report then that I am not sure he is entirely successful. His performance in front of the camera is fine, maybe a little underplayed, but that’s acceptable enough when pulling double duties. Visually everything is also fine. So far, so not horrible.

In terms of scares and horror tropes, it’s a smart mix of traditional Asian style ghost story (lots of traditional cultural festival type stuff that is not immediately penetrable to the average Westerner) and a much more modern Western horror sensibility. And I don’t just mean a lot of loud music cues, but also he borrows from the Paranormal Activity school by using modern technology (in this case CCTV cameras). This fusion on a purely scare-front I think works rather well, with the film really kicking in around the hour mark to make the exercise generally successful.

At least they didn’t go completely “shaky cam”on us…. that particular fad is soooo over in this Catgirl’s opinon. I’d say that the folklore bits presented should be comprehensible to most Western audiences even if they miss some of the details…. thank goodness Asian horror is becoming more Mainstream… that definitely helps. Carolyn at least followed things fairly easily. (Mind you… that is after an intensive tutoring and steady diet of Asian ghost films courtesy of her loving movie obssessed wifey… )

On the other hand, he and the film really do struggle in other areas, and I think I am going to lay much of the blame at the script. Firstly, we have a whole bunch of characters of whom we never really get to know an awful lot about. So we don’t really know if they are acting normally or not. In fact, worse than that, it’s hard to care about them or their fate. And for a 80-odd minute movie, there is far too much unnecessary back story going on with Zong Hua himself – we hear about failed businesses and a romance that eventually goes tragically wrong, but in reality these add nothing to the story itself.

I’m not certain that padding out the story would have helped things either. The story just didn’t seem to gell very well for me and dragging things along probably wouldn’t have been better. Even if we had gotten more of the backstory that I still do think should have been more central to things.

Worse still is the strange decision to film the Carrie Ng segments in such a way that they are totally disconnected from the rest of the film. Clearly a student of Wong Kar-wai, Cheung bizarrely chooses to ape “In The Mood For Love”, even using similar music cues. The problem is, he doesn’t tie this story together until the dénouement of the film. It simply doesn’t work, and only acts to disturb the atmosphere that is successfully built up in the rest of the film. It also suffers from one of my little bugbears, where a minor character basically says “oh and people are saying there was another Cantonese Opera Troupe that all died in a fire here 40 years ago”. We aren’t stupid, we know what this other segment is leading to, but the execution of joining these disparate elements together is clumsy.

The rest of the cast are not really that exceptional either. Taiwanese-Canadian Annie Liu is ok at best, and Malaysian Cathryn Lee is just pretty. And pretty awful. On the other hand Carrie Ng chews up the scenery beautifully

For me, no one actor or actress really stood out. I’m thinking the characters were just so stock and cardboard that even an excellent actor would have been hard pressed to make something great of the material.

So what we have here is a well filmed, occasionally effectively scary film encumbered by a overfull yet narratively incomplete screenplay. It looks great, but doesn’t quite work. Sounds like a film by the Pang Brothers really, and it comes as no surprise when you see it is actually edited by Curran Pang. Now I am not sure if he is related to the brothers (probably not as I believe he is Thai and the brothers are Hong Kong born), but he is synonymous with their work.

I’m not certain either of any connection between these particular Pangs…. it’s probably coincidental, but the influences are certainly apparent. To me the film has a very “Chinese” feel and not a “Malay” one. The styles are really different once you’ve watched enough of both.

It is far from horrible, but it doesn’t fill me with an awful lot of hope that Cheung will become as good behind the camera as he is in front of it. But maybe, if he stops pulling double duties, gets a reasonable script, and doesn’t ape other peoples styles? There is still hope. I’m going for a Mildly Recommended.  And for those of you that want to see the OTHER side of this review, go check out Miyu’s site here.

I’m thinking you liked it a smidge more than me. I was pretty much unimpressed overall. Maybe I’ve seen so many of these ghost films I’m getting all Jaded and spoiled? Nawwwwww….. you can never see too many Asian ghost films. 😉  Anyways… as always it’s been fun trading opinions and I’m open for another visit anytime you think we can pull it off. Like you I’m aching for the day we find that perfect film that thrills us both. Don’t worry, dear Stephen… we’ll find it. 🙂

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