A Wicked Ghost

Back around the turn of the century, there were few directors as committed to the maligned Hong Kong horror genre as Tony Leung. Unfortunately, Tony Leung wasn’t a very good filmmaker. And double unfortunately, he wasn’t a bad enough filmmaker. Everything he made had an air of middling, uninteresting near-competency about it, the work it seemed of a talented amateur or an untalented professional. Now before you fire off an angry email (do people still use email?) telling me how great Tony Leung is, keep in mind that I am not referring to the Tony Leung who starred in Ashes of Time. Nor am I referring to the Tony Leung who starred in Tom, Dick, and Hairy. Oh wait, that’s both Tony Leungs. Oh, you know the guys: Chiu-wai and Kar-fei. And maybe that third Tony Leung, action choreographer Tony Leung Siu-Hung (Bloodmoon, Superfights).

No, feeling that the Hong Kong film industry wasn’t complete with just three guys calling themselves Tony Leung, writer-director Leung Hung-wah decided that he too would become Tony Leung, joining an ever-growing cast of characters favoring that particular name combination. Leung Hung-wah got his start in the early 1980s as an actor in a few films not many people remember. In 1986, he penned his first screenplay, Ghost Snatchers, which starred Michael Wong and Joyce Godenzi (She Shoots Straight). When Leung crossed over into directing, his interest in low-budget horror films became apparent. Mystery Files was his first directorial effort, and in 1999 he followed it up with A Wicked Ghost, an obvious though not entirely dismissible attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Japanese horror film Ring.

As anyone who has tested the waters of the world of Hong Kong horror well knows, it’s a strange place even in the world of horror. Action, kungfu, melodrama, slapstick comedy, sex, and chills are often thrown together in a mish-mash of styles that rarely work well together, giving one the impression of watching several different movies at once, sort of like those Thomas Tang/Godfrey Ho ninja movies or a Bollywood masala film. Although there are some good Hong Kong horror films — most notably Chinese Ghost Story and Mr. Vampire — even those are difficult to accept as pure “horror” within the boundaries set by Western expectations. Chinese Ghost Story is more of a fantasy film, and Mr. Vampire is as much a kungfu comedy as it is a horror film. Part of this  difference in approaches can simply be attributed to the fact that tastes around the world vary. Chinese audiences have different expectations of what a horror film should be, and since they have a wealth of local mythology from which to draw, there’s no need to plumb the depths of Western genre traditions for ideas. Hopping vampires may not be scary to Western audiences, but how scary is some old count in an opera cape to your average cranky old Chinese guy? For every werewolf there is a fox spirit; for every zombie there is, well, a kungfu zombie. For every Medusa there is a witch whose head comes off and flies around the room screaming at you.

In 1999, the Japanese film The Ring hit the screens and threw gasoline onto a smoldering fire that had been started by films like Wizard of Darkness, Birth of the Wizard, and by the horror comics of Junji Ito. Japanese film and manga makers discovered that Japanese girls (in particular) have a voracious appetite for tales of horror, especially when the protagonists are people they can relate to — namely, other girls. That this whole batch of books, comics, and movies gets dubbed “schoolgirl horror” is somewhat misleading, conjuring up as it does images of tales roughly on the level of an RL Stine book. On the contrary, many of the films are quite good, quite scary, mature (or mature-ish) and surprisingly gory. They are a natural progression from the fact that horror has often favored female protagonists, but only in these films were female audience members catered to. From Junji Ito manga to Ring, the Korean film Memento Mori to American films like The Hunger Games — time and again we see that girls and young women like horror, like adventure, like movies, and are willing to turn them into phenomenons on the rare occasion anyone bothers to acknowledge women are a market that actually exists.

In the wake of Ring’s success, the whole genre acquired mainstream appeal, and “Ring” movies themselves became something of a cottage industry. A sequel to the original was put into production under the name Rasen or Spiral (not to be confused with another schoolgirl horror film, Uzumaki, which can be translated as meaning “Spiral”). Ring director Hideo Nakata, who was not involved in the sequel, didn’t like the way it carried on the vision of his film, and so he set out to make his own official sequel, simply known as Ring 2. There was a television series, a third “prequel” called Ring 0: Birthday, and a Korean adaptation of the same original novel called Ring Virus. And about a million other films form Japan and Hong Kong about spooky women with long wet hair or little kids with funky croaky howls. Somewhere amid all the noise was Tony Leung with his Wicked Ghost film. Along with Bio-Zombie, it’s one of the few Hong Kong horror films of the 1990s to bear a resemblance to the style preferred by Japanese and Western horror films, though there’s enough esoteric Chinese superstition in it for it to maintain its own cultural identity. While not exactly a rip-off of The Ring, A Wicked Ghost certainly steals willy-nilly from the superior Japanese film as it weaves its own mythology of an angry ghost lashing out from beyond the grave. The most obvious example is the appearance of the ghost itself, which manifests as a pale woman with long black hair hanging in front of her face.

The plot steals the same basic structure as well, though to its credit, it does change it enough so as not to be a complete act of plagiarism. Only mostly. Trouble begins immediately when a group of friends are playing one of those “let’s summon up some ghosts” type games at a party. The game requires them to each slit their finger, drip blood into a bowl of water then take turns drinking it. You know, I played my share of supernatural ghost-summoning games when I was younger, and I have to say that I drew the line at any game that involved slicing my finger and drinking the blood of my pals. Most people I know are hesitant to even drink from the same cup as one of their friends, let alone consume a mixture of their precious bodily fluids. When you add to it the fact that you have to mix in “some oil from a dead body,” it really just becomes time to call it a night. It’s not even that it has anything to do with being afraid of ghosts; there just have to be better games you can play with your friends than ones involving you drinking dead body oil and blood. Have these people never heard of just lighting scented candles and saying “Bloody Mary” three times?

One of the friends, Ming, seems to agree with me, and he’ll have none of this drinking of bloody water and corpse oil. His friends go ahead with the fun, and before too long, ghostly wind blows through the apartment and one of the friends, a guy named Rubbish, has died of extreme fright after seeing a ghost. His face is frozen in an expression meant to convey either “I am terrified beyond the comprehension of mortals” or “I’m hungry.” Just as the impetus for the action — a group of friends who invoke an otherworldly force and are then mysteriously killed off — mimics the same basic plot from Ring about a group of friends summoning a similar force after watching a cursed videotape, so too is the horrified expression a somewhat less effective imitation of the look of fear all the victims in Ring take with them to the grave.

Continuing to pull wildly from Ring the movie introduces Ming’s reporter sister, Cissy (Gigi Lai), and her (seemingly) ex-boyfriend, Mo (the indomitable Francis Ng), a teacher who seems to possess psychic powers and an uncanny though very handy knowledge of all things supernatural. Similarities between them and female reporter Reiko and her ex-husband and resident psychic teacher and expert on the paranormal, Ryuji, is purely coincidental. At one point, the film even shows a second-long clip of the disturbing Sadako video from Ring, though it has nothing to do with the actual plot and is undermined by Francis Ng popping up and going, “Hey, it’s me! Let’s meet” because why the hell would he call when he can make and mail a really weird videotape? There’s also an old man who is the key to figuring out much of the mystery, and a body that needs to be properly laid to rest in order to end the curse, and the revelation at some point that what they thought was the answer was, in fact, wrong. For people who have seen Ring, the plot is very familiar indeed. It hurts mainly because hard is A Wicked Ghost tries, this movie is no Ring. Having so many images and elements lifted from the superior film means you’re going to sit there for much of this film thinking about how much better Ring was.

Ming and Mo figure out that the spirit-raising game has summoned an angry ghost who is tricking everyone into killing themselves. Efforts to figure out a way to stop the ghost are confused when people with no connection to the initial summoning start dying as well. And why is it, everyone wonders, that Ming — who didn’t take part in the game — can see the ghost? As in Ring, it becomes a race against the clock to solve the mystery before it claims the lives of more people. Although built in pretty much the same fashion as the plot from Ring the writing here still has a couple unique twists and surprises that keep the movie from being a complete joke. Although undermined by the huge amount of cribbing of images and scenes the film does, somewhere beneath the Ring-exploitation was a halfway decent story that never got a fair chance.

Mo’s weird little crackpot theories about the transference of emotion are actually somewhat interesting within the context of the film. I always wonder why every professor in every horror or sci-fi film is always featured in a lecture scene during which they’re espousing some half-baked pet hypothesis. I had my fair share of crackpot professors, but none of them spent the entire class period rambling on about the “the lost amulet of Nagath-nor, which only I believe in” or anything like that, then ended up in an adventure that just happened to revolve around that very artifact. Yet film professors are always on about something similar, and it always happen to be a lecture about exactly what is going to happen in the movie. Mo’s lecture is about how emotion can become a sort of energy that can be transferred from one source to another. That’s why we feel sad when we watch a sad movie or feel angry when we watch Man of Steel. As far as crackpot theories go, it’s not a bad one, and it ties in with the plot of the movie about a murder victim (who was an actress, just to keep the theme going) who transfers her rage in the form of a ghost.

The most notable different between A Wicked Ghost and Ring (besides the sloppy, amateurish nature of the former) is in the female reporter. While Reiko was the driving force behind the action in Ring, Cissy’s role here is more or less disposable. She’s there to shout at her brother for hanging out with people who summon vengeful spirits (granted, he deserves it), and she’s there to be a convenient link between Ming and Mo. The love triangle between her, Mo, and her fiancee Jack attempts to give her character some reason for being in the film, but it’s never really developed to the point that it matters much. When Mo accepts the ghost’s curse alongside Cissy in the end so he can help her survive the attack, it could just have easily happened without the underdeveloped subplot involving Jack.

With Cissy relegated to the ranks of screaming woman, her brother Ming, who works closely with Mo to unravel the mystery surrounding just what ghost it is they’ve awakened, picks up the action. Although he’s on screen a lot, Ming fails to develop into an interesting character. When the plot throws us one its many curveballs toward the end, the fact that it involves a character as bland as Ming saps it of some of the power. That no character other than Mo generates any sort of sympathy means that the movie fails to create any sense of urgency or tension. With Ring, a mounting sense of hysteria grew from the fact that we actually liked Ryuji and Reiko, and we even liked their weird little son. We didn’t want to see them succumb to the curse. We wanted to see them succeed, and we wanted that because the film took time to establish positive character traits for them. With A Wicked Ghost, we meet most of the cast during the seance, and their next scene we see them in is the one in which they die. In between, there is nothing to make us feel like we should care one way or the other.

Even with all his screen time, Ming doesn’t fare much better. Part of the problem again is the dub job. Dubbing Hong Kong movies was pretty much the way things were done, and still are for most low-budget productions. It was a practical decision more than anything. Shooting synched sound is expensive, for one. Since Hong Kong films were seen by as many Mandarin speakers as they were Cantonese speakers, and since the differences between the two dialects make them more or less different languages, the films would be dubbed anyway for the Mandarin speakers. Not shooting with sound also meant that multiple productions could occupy the same limited real estate in Hong Kong for location work. Most of the time, the actors would come in and do their own voices, and the end effect was such that you could hardly tell. Sometimes, certain actors would even dub their own Mandarin tracks as well. And of course, Jet Li was almost always dubbed by someone else regardless of the language, because he has a chipmunk voice.

Why they went with entirely different actors to do the dubbing in Wicked Ghost is beyond me. How expensive can Gigi Lai and Gabriel Harrison (Ming) be? A good actor can survive a bad dub job, which is why Francis Ng emerges in fair condition, but Gabriel Harrison is pretty green, and his facial expressions and body language are not effective enough to compensate for the lackluster dubbing. In one scene, as he watches his girlfriend become possessed by the ghost and attempt to kill herself by eating a party mix of pills, the general idea is that he’s too paralyzed by fear to simply rush over and stop her. The weak voice work combined with Gabriel’s pouty expression make it come across as if he’s simply too lazy or unconcerned to walk across the room and deal with the problem. The viewers have to keep reminding themselves that there’s a ghost in the room, because the movie itself fails to communicate that.

Looking scared is harder than you might think. Your average terrified person doesn’t stop to make a mental note of how their face contorts when they’re seized by terror. The common manifestation is to simply scream and scrunch your nose up. If you’ve ever been really scared, and I mean really really scared, you know that screaming is one of the least likely reactions to the situation. It’s actually a lot subtler, and Gabriel Harrison hasn’t got it down yet. Hiroyuki Sanada has a wonderful look of terror at the end of Ring when he has his revelation about the ghost. It’s a face twitch and a look of bewildered horror that is beautifully communicated. When you see it, you can nod and go, “Yep, that’s the look of a terrified man.” Although it’s an unlikely source, another of film’s greatest looks of terror comes in the beginning of Ghostbusters. When Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis are running out of the library after being frightened by a ghost, the “I’m about to puke” look of panic on Akroyd’s face is priceless, and even though it’s a comedy, it’s a perfect glimpse of a genuinely scared person.

Harrison’s best offering is to look vaguely confused. It doesn’t do the trick, and especially in the scene where his possessed girlfriend is gobbling prescription drugs, it works against his character. He would be great friends with the dude in Bhoot Ke Pechhe Bhoot who reacts to his girlfriend being attacked by a zombie-faced ghost ape by squinting and going, “Hey…hey…hey…come on…”

Directorially, the film is awkward. Hong Kong horror has always favored oddball point-of-view zooms and Hitchcockian weird angles and camera tricks. There’s nothing in Leung’s direction that is so bad you could brand it an outright fault, but the movie does possess the look of what it is: someone’s second film. There’s an inexperience to the proceedings, and that results in tension lost. Leung hasn’t really got down how to build anxiety or deliver a sufficient pay-off. Most of the films attempts at scares consist of something popping into view along with a blast of “fright” music. Unfortunately, it also telegraphs just about all these instances, so you don’t even get the cheap jump. Although the plot manages to rise above what you might expect, the actual composition of the film never escapes predictability. With a few exceptions, you know when the scare attempts are coming, and you know what they’re going to look like. It’s a marked difference between this movie and Ring, which I found to be one of the most successful and genuinely scary horror films I’d seen in a long time.

A Wicked Ghost isn’t totally without chills though, and from time to time you can catch a glimpse of potential in Leung’s work. The trappings of Chinese superstition always lend an air of eeriness to things, but Leung’s most successful segments come when the investigation into the origins of the ghost lead Ming to an abandoned village that was the scene of a mass murder/suicide spree in which sixty-six people were killed in a span of three days. The setting itself is creepy by default, even in broad daylight, but when Ming wanders into a decrepit temple, Leung has one of his best moments. The camera pans around in point-of-view style, taking in all the decay, but when it comes back in the direction from which it came, we begin to catch glimpses of hunched over figures kneeling in the rubble. It’s the film’s most effective moment, although the shot in which Ming sees the ghost clinging to the back of one of his friend’s is pretty good as well.

Likewise little images here and there work, like the long-haired ghost sinking slowly into a pond or a scene in a washroom where the ghost of an old guy just wanders in to freak people out. There’s also a decent scene in which a character morphs into the ghost. Sure, the movie fails more than it succeeds, but the successes are pretty creepy. Leung manages to subvert the familiar world by placing these otherworldly apparitions in very run-of-the-mill settings with nothing special about them. Traditionally in Hong Kong horror, supernatural shenanigans are accompanied by someone shining green spotlights all over the place, green being the color of all things ghostly in Chinese mythology. Leung avoids the obvious in this respect, opting instead (possibly because of budgetary constraints) to play the scenes straight. For me, seeing some creepy ghost limp around an otherwise normal apartment with normal lighting and a normal color palette is scarier than if that apartment was suddenly bathed in a green glow. One of the most effective ways to unnerve people is to warp what they think they know.

And then there’s the ghost, Mei. Yes indeed she’s a rip-off of Sadako from Ring. But you know what? Even in light of that, she’s still a little spooky. Sadako had one of the more effective, creepy appearances of any creature in any horror film. Just imagine glancing out the window to see her standing on the corner of the street, slowly coming toward you. Any movie that rips that look off is going to reap a little residual chill from it. Original? Not in the least, but it still works. The final scene is something of a flawed gem as well. There is no real resolution to the problem of Mei slinking around and killing people. Sure, Mo and Cissy manage to break the curse on them, but what about all the other people? In a nice bit of writing, the woman who had a husband who was willing to kill her in order to save himself is moved by Mo, who in contrast to Mei’s husband is willing to sacrifice himself in order to save Cissy. It would seem at first that this act has quelled Mei’s murderous rage, but then Jack goes and attracts her attention, and we see that it’s really only Mo and Cissy who have been saved. What becomes of Mei and of the innocent people who were unwittingly cursed remains unknown.

A Wicked Ghost is more ambitious than it is successful, but even ambition is an admirable trait in a movie that could have just been a rip-off with no attempt to do anything different. From his filmography as writer and director, one has to assume that Tony Leung loves horror films, and as I said in the beginning, I appreciate his attempts to keep horror in Hong Kong alive. As flawed as A Wicked Ghost is, there is effort put into it. Tony Leung isn’t just some Wong Jing type who will dash any old crap off to make a fast buck off a trend. No, Leung may have been hoping to cash in on Ring’s success, but he was also looking to make a good film. There’s effort behind the exploitation. Within the realm of Hong Kong horror, A Wicked Ghost looks OK despite its sundry flaws. It avoids entirely the tendency toward sophomoric slapstick comedy in which so many other Hong Kong horror films indulge. It also manages to be more than just a series of shots in which five people scream and run from one room to another, which is a description that fits more than a few Hong Kong chillers.

One thing that keeps the movie slightly alien to non-Chinese viewers would be the rather blase and at times downright callous attitudes toward death some of the characters exhibit. Part of this can be attributed to the bad voice acting, but part of it just grows from a culture where the dead are dealt with in a different fashion, like constant companions hopping around the netherworld. My favorite example of this is in a scene where an older guy is on an elevator and is suddenly approached by the ghost of a dead loved one. Perhaps you would react with fright, or maybe you’d just go into shock. His reaction is simply to make a sort of annoyed face and go, “Leave me alone. You’re already dead.” Within the framework of Hong Kong horror films, people don’t react especially strongly to death because the assumption is that ghosts exist, and that is that. There’s very little skepticism presented. In light of that, it’s not so difficult to understand why people aren’t more upset by death. They know whoever has died is still lurking around somewhere; they’re just in a different form.

I enjoyed A Wicked Ghost despite its amateurish nature. It’s an underdog of a film. Sloppy. Not fully realized. Riddled with problems, not the least of which being the fact that it steals en masse from Ring, sometimes just for the hell of it. But by God, despite all that, the movie tries hard. Tony Leung summons up the spirit of a good horror film, and although it doesn’t quite materialize, the end result is still interesting. I appreciate that it sticks to horror convention and doesn’t wander all over the place in an attempt to be all things to all audiences. No kungfu, no wacky hijinks, no lame comic relief characters. Just straight-up, ripped-off J-horror. It’s still a rarity in Hong Kong, and that makes this film something special. A Wicked Ghost deserves a look if for no other reason than it tried to be something a little more than the usual fare. If you’re a fan of Ring and all the associated works that came with it, then you should check out this movie, even if it’s just as a curiosity piece. If you’re just looking for some interesting horror, you could still do worse than A Wicked Ghost.

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