While remaining committed to the horror genre, Nick Cheung's second outing as director is a huge improvement on 2013's Hungry Ghost Ritual. Again casting himself in the lead, Cheung this time leaves writing duties to Yeung Sin Ling (Inner Senses, The Bullet Vanishes) to tell the story of an exorcist, whose unconventional methods attract the attentions of a spunky young journalist and a murderous demon. Complemented by rich production values, lively performances and an inventive screenplay, Keeper Of Darkness succeeds as detective story, spectral romance and even streetwise comedy, while resuscitating our confidence in Cheung as the new renaissance man of Hong Kong Cinema.
Wong Wing Fatt (Cheung) is an exorcist operating in contemporary Hong Kong, but rather than using spells and chants to return the restless dead to Hell, Fatt negotiates with them instead. We soon learn that Fatt also takes his work home with him, as he shares his apartment with a beautiful ghost, Cherr (Amber Kuo), while also struggling with haunting memories from his own past.
When a video of one of Fatt's exorcisms, shot by his streetwise protege Chung (Louis Cheung), goes viral, it attracts the attentions of young reporter Ling (Sisley Choi), who is determined to document both the man and his unique abilities. However, Fatt has also been targeted by a malevolent demon, Hark (Shi Yanneng), who has been unleashed in the neighbourhood and is murdering Fatt's competition, which inevitably culminates in their own a deadly showdown.
Cheung's first effort from the director's chair, Hungry Ghost Ritual, was an incredibly underwhelming debut, that proved neither atmospheric nor scary, and largely squandered its setting in the world of traditional Cantonese Opera. The good will shown to Cheung by the local industry remains strong, however, and Keeper Of Darkness employs a bigger budget and more adept crew in a follow-up that is more successful in almost every regard.
Cheung, with an Andy Warhol mop of white hair and tattoo-covered torso, plays Fatt as almost serenely worldly-wise - and as his backstory reveals, he has pretty much seen it all from a very young age. Never fazed by his ghoulish adversaries, Fatt only ever appears vulnerable when at home, in the company of Cherr - the romantic interest with whom he can never be. Instead, he plays mentor to both Chung and Ling, showing them the ropes and intricacies of his essentially un-teachable gift, while they bicker and flirt with each other.
Keeper Of Darkness has plenty in common with Guillermo del Toro's recent gothic romance, Crimson Peak, not least the fact that both are films populated by ghosts, without necessarily being horror films. Chan Chi Ying's cinematography and Yee Chung Man's production design ensure the film is always gorgeous to look at, but an over-reliance on CGI occasionally works to the detriment of the film's ability to scare its audience. A criticism that can also be levelled at del Toro's latest.
Yeung's screenplay introduces a number of disparate characters occupying both real and supernatural realms, but Cheung somehow manages to keep all his balls in the air at once. Whether aiming for comedy, scares, romance or something more melancholic, Keeper Of Darkness always feels like a single film, even when some individual aspects don't pay off. The story also offers plenty of opportunities for big-name cameos in small but pivotal roles. Karena Lam, Shawn Yue and director Andrew Lau show up, but perhaps the biggest name of all is saved for the film's final shot, which reveals a desire to make a sequel.
Not without its flaws, Keeper Of Darkness is packed with enough ambition, imagination and arresting imagery to largely paper over its moments of weakness. The performances are likeable and energetic, while the story is by turns exciting, humorous and achingly romantic. Unlike so many other Chinese language films these days, Keeper Of Darkness really feels like a Hong Kong film, rather than a product created for mass consumption north of the border.
Using unglamorous locations rich in character to tell a very personal story that anchors the drama, the film also has a timeless quality that should resonate with local audiences and supporters of this shrinking industry. If audiences do take to Keeper Of Darkness in enthusiastic numbers, Nick Cheung may just have launched his own franchise.