Nick Cheung follows a string of critical and commercial hits with his debut as writer-director, a seasonal horror flick in which he also takes the leading role. While Cheung has a keen eye for detail when it comes to the traditions associated with the Hungry Ghost Festival, his scripting is flimsy and cliched while his direction lacks atmosphere or genuine chills.
Nick Cheung has been a regular fixture on Hong Kong screens since the early nineties, but it was his collaborations with Johnnie To that drove him towards leading man status. Since his award-winning turn in Dante Lam's 2008 thriller, Beast Stalker, Cheung cemented his status as one of the more talented and interesting performers in the local industry. Last year he starred in Hong Kong's biggest local film of the summer, MMA drama Unbeatable, also directed by Lam, and capped off the year by beating Tony Leung to the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor.
It comes as little surprise to see Cheung capitalise on his newfound industry clout to move behind the camera and try his hand at directing. Hungry Ghost Ritual is very specific to Hong Kong, focusing on regional superstitions and traditions, while slotting comfortably into an easily recognisable and popular genre. What is so disappointing then, is how formulaic and impersonal it feels, while also displaying the same weaknesses as many recent Hong Kong horror films.
Cheung plays Zong Hua, the absent son of a modestly successful opera troupe leader, who returns after more than a decade in China on the eve of their Hungry Ghost Festival performance. No sooner has Zong arrived, however, a series of bizarre, borderline supernatural occurrences take place. Zong's adolescent sister Jing Jing (Cathryn Lee) starts acting out, and the stress gives Zong's father a heart attack. With the inexperienced Zong now in charge, the rest of the troupe turn against him and are quick to blame his lack of understanding for their rituals and traditions for their problems.
Only actress Xiu Yin (Annie Liu) seems sympathetic to Zong's situation, but even her behaviour becomes erratic, coming on to him one minute, coldly distant the next. Jing Jing has also become uncharacteristically attentive to her father since his attack. The stress of Zong's serious financial troubles back in China and the antagonistic behaviour of the troupe are compounded by a number of sightings of ghosts and spirits in and around his home. Zong installs video cameras in his room and around the building, which only confirm his suspicions that the spirits are indeed displeased.
By drawing his character as an outsider unfamiliar with the troupe and its traditions, Cheung's script is able to exposit plenty of information about the ghost festival and the various rituals surrounding it without feeling clumsy or over-explanatory. But once the groundwork has been laid, the film treads water, reluctant to reveal its ghoulish payoff until the final reel, but with little to keep things interesting in the interim. As a result the film quickly becomes repetitive as things continue to go bump in the night without explanation.
Cheung is clearly aiming for a slow burn, building atmosphere towards an effects-heavy final act, in a similar vein to Juno Mak's far more accomplished Rigor Mortis. Sadly, the characters are so shallow and the plot lacking any clear narrative arc that it is difficult for viewers to become invested in the film. The scary set-pieces are also over-reliant on crashing audio cues rather than anything genuinely creepy, the contorting possessed bodies feel derivative of a dozen other better movies, while the CG-heavy effects work never feels tangible enough to evoke a reaction.
One sequence, featuring a girl in an elevator witnessed via CCTV, specifically evokes the Elisa Lam murder case - in which security footage captured her strange behaviour in a Los Angeles hotel shortly before her body was discovered in the rooftop water tank - but Cheung's reenactment cannot compete with the chilling nature of its source material.
Elsewhere a subplot involving Carrie Ng's spurned prima donna feels strangely out of place with the rest of the film, as if she is starring in her own mini Wong Kar Wai drama apart from the rest of the action. Her role is eventually explained, but proves just another strike against the film's ability for coherent cinematic storytelling.
As was the case with Simon Yam's directorial offering in last year's anthology Tales From The Dark, Nick Cheung is clearly a fan of horror films, but has nothing new to bring to the genre, narratively or stylistically. The denouement does suggest that traditions like the Hungry Ghost Festival are at risk of becoming obsolete, and increasingly exist solely to appease generations of dead ancestors. But more tragic still is that Cheung's film squanders its opportunity to revive fascination and interest for these same rituals in young movie-goers.
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