Film Review Foreign

Reel Asian Film Review: Tales from the Dark Part 1

November 15, 2013Ben MK

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Supernatural chills, Hong Kong style

Ask any asian horror film fan worth their salt, and they will surely remember the 2004 film, Three... Extremes. The three-part horror anthology featured segments by some of Hong Kong, Korea and Japan's most reknowned directors: Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook and Takashi Miike. The standout short from that film, Dumplings, based on the story by Lilian Lee, was also later extended into a feature length film. Fast forward nine years, and Chan and Lee are back with a new anthology of the supernatural, called Tales from the Dark Part 1.

Unlike Three... Extremes, which featured but one segment based on Lilian Lee's short stories, Tales from the Dark Part 1 is wholely based on Lee's novellas. This time around, Chan shares the directing duties with veteran actor Simon Yam (who makes his directorial debut) and Lee Chi-ngai; and the result is undeniably Hong Kong-centric.

The first short, entitled Stolen Goods and directed by Yam, revolves around a man named Kwan (Yam), who lives in squalor and struggles to make ends meet. After losing a series of jobs, he turns to grave robbing as a last resort. Attempting to ransom the ashes of the deceased, he soon finds more than he bargains for when the supernatural comes calling to collect. The segment also co-stars Yuen Qiu and Lam Suet (both of whom Western audiences may recognize from Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle). The second tale, A Word in the Palm, is directed by Lee and tells the story of a fortune teller named Ho (Tony Leung Ka Fai), whose last day on the job proves more eventful than planned when he is pulled into investigating the mysterious death of a high school student. Actress/singer Kelly Chen (Infernal Affairs) and model/actress Cherry Ngan also star. The final short is directed by Chan and is entitled Jing Zhe. Set against the backdrop of the villain hitting trade -- an ancient practice involving beating paper representations of one's enemies as a means of cursing them -- it details the events of one fateful night for a seasoned villain hitter named Chu (Siu Yam-Yam). What begins as an ordinary night quickly gets out of hand when her last customer of the evening turns out to be a ghost with a personal vendetta. Unlike Western horror anthology films (like The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and Trick 'r Treat), there is no overarching narration that ties the segments together. That's not to say that any connection between the stories is needed, though; the film is all the better without it, and the stories are more impactful without any unnecessary framing. There is a common thread that runs through all three tales, and that is that each of them is rooted in tragedy -- as good ghost stories usually are.

Being the product of three different directors, however, each story naturally has its own distinct flavor and style; but their presentation order in the film proper helps to smooth out the differences and turn the sum of the parts into a cohesive whole. Stolen Goods sets the stage as the most traditional of the three, execution-wise, relying heavily on familiar horror movie tropes -- right down to the pale ghost makeup used in Chinese films. It's also the most serious, serving double duty as both a horror pic and a commentary on the socioeconomic differences in Hong Kong. A Word in the Palm begins in the same dramatic vein, but it isn't long before it shows its true colors as an uniquely inspired blend of horror and comedy. And as the closing short, Jing Zhe tries to provide the film with the twist ending audiences have come to expect from horror films. After lulling them into a false sense of security with its darkly humorous dialog, it undergoes a dramatic shift in tone halfway through; but ultimately it's little more than a barebones lesson in the old adage, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". There is a standout short in the bunch, however, and that's A Word in the Palm. It has the most depth and spectacularly defies the usual genre conventions, working as both a horror and a comedy. But it's really Tony Leung Ka Fai's and Kelly Chen's performances that make this short as enjoyable as it is. The two actors have such a natural rapport and chemistry together that it elevates Lee's segment high above the rest.

The Bottom Line

Tales from the Dark Part 1 has something for horror fans and Hong Kong cinephiles alike, maintaining the flavor of the latter while serving up an entertaining milieu of the former. Although all of its segments are not created equal, it's worth the price of admission for A Word in the Palm alone. You may even forget to be scared because it's so much fun to watch. Of course, with "Part 1" in its title, you'd expect there to be more to the stories -- and you'd be right -- but that's a tale (or three) for another time. [★★★½]

* Reviewer's Note: Tales from the Dark Part 1 is a 2013 Hong Kong production and was screened as the Centrepiece Presentation of the 2013 Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.

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