One of this year’s biggest Chinese New Year film releases has belatedly arrived in Melbourne’s Chinatown Cinema for a short season. Well, better late than never I suppose. A successful Chinese New Year movie will nearly always have the following ingredients: it must be family oriented, have big name stars, countless celebrity cameos and story-lines guaranteed not to tax the intellect.
An Inspector Calls is a strange choice for a Hong Kong movie, let alone a major Chinese New Year film. Based on the 1945 play by British author J.B. Priestley, this drawing-room drama has been transposed to modern-day Hong Kong and involves the Kau family on the day their daughter is to celebrate her engagement. The family patriarch, Kau Ming, is a wealthy business entrepreneur who looks to be on the verge of bankruptcy. Eric Tsang (Aberdeen) plays this businessman as a tightly-wound ball of unfocused aggression. Teresa Mo (Mr Cinema) is good value as Ming’s wife who micro-manages the staff (watch for Helena Lo-Lan as possibly Hong Kong’s oldest and slowest speaking housemaid) and her adult family. Of the latter, the daughter Sherry (Karena Ng) is a prima donna who sees marriage as nothing more than a fashion accessory, and her layabout brother, Tim (Gordon Lam), hides from the world in his bedroom-cum-toybox. The facade of a happy family is well in place here — or at least until the moment an Inspector calls on the Kau mansion.
Louis Koo (Drug War) is Inspector Karl, who is investigating the suicide of a young Hong Kong factory worker named Cindy Cheung (Chrissie Chau). With much bluff and bluster the detective is soon uncovering a hornet’s nest of infidelities and hypocrisies. It appears all of the Kau family have at various times been connected with the dead girl. And it’s possible that one or more members of this family might be directly involved with Cindy Cheung’s death.
Co-directors Herman Yau (Sara) and Raymond Wong (All’s Well End’s Well Too 2010) move this housebound whodunnit along at a good clip, and with Koo’s enjoyably over-the-top interrogation techniques, the audience is kept in the dark as much as the main suspects are.
The clues and the background to the young woman’s death are mostly shown via a series of cleverly produced and structured fantasy sequences. From a wage slave being threatened by a huge lobster to a crumbling stairway to heaven — they all work well and flesh out the more human elements of the story.By the time the guests begin to arrive and the star cameos become the movie’s main focus, Inspector Karl’s investigation is all but forgotten. Instead, we get a Donnie Yen quartet (I kid you not!) serenading the newly engaged couple with the Four Seasons hit “Sherry”. It’s all harmless fun and very light entertainment – exactly what the audience has come to expect from a Chinese New Year film.
On a more sombre note, An Inspector Calls is the final film from veteran Hong Kong cinematographer Joe Chan Kwong-Hung, who died last December in a tragic boating mishap during the filming of Jackie Chan’s latest pic Skiptrace. Joe Chan’s early work with director Ringo Lam (School on Fire, Full Contact) showed a brilliance in utilising filters and natural light. Along with fellow cameramen, Wong Wing-Hang (Hard-Boiled), Ko Chiu-Lam (The Longest Nite) and Peter Pau (The Killer), the Cantonese crime film developed such a distinctive look it was soon being imitated by European and American cinematographers. Joe Chan was never short of work and regularly lensed films for Hong Kong’s best directors. My personal favorite of his oeuvre is the 1989 crime drama A Killer’s Blues — a diamond in the rough of Hong Kong film noir.