Hong Kong produced a rash of “I see ghosts” films over the space of a couple of years, and this is one of the better ones. This is probably largely because of the cast: it’s really a two-person film, with several supporting actors popping up briefly just to show that the city’s not completely uninhabited.
It’s not just that they’re good, although that’s definitely true. Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing was one of the finest actors around, and particularly good at portraying complex characters such as Jim Law. Many of his best performances came in roles that were not really likeable, but fascinatingly flawed. Sadly, this is probably a reflection of his struggle with depression, and it certainly looks to me as though Jim came from letting a little bit of Leslie shine through.
Karena Lam handles her role opposite Leslie with aplomb. It must have been hard for such a young actress to work with a legend in the biz like Leslie, and many, perhaps most, of the current crop would have been completely outclassed (some would be completely outclassed by a fence-post, but that’s another story). She doesn’t shine, as does Leslie, but she definitely holds her own.
These two work seamlessly, aided by a well-paced script, to weave a story that builds tension in small increments. Yan sits in the psychiatrist’s office fidgeting, eyes darting, clearly unable to handle what her own mind is throwing at her, as Jim adopts the stance of lofty professional, helpful but slightly contemptuous. From these inauspicious beginnings, you’d think that Jim would steadfastly refuse to believe, Yan would find inner strength somewhere to win through, and all would be well. But it is not to be. Instead of Jim helping Yan to defeat her demons, he finds himself falling prey to some of his own. And it’s here that Leslie gets a chance to show his talent, giving some of the most memorably uncomfortable scenes of recent years.
I have to throw a word in here about set design. It’s not something that often occurs to me, mainly because it rarely stands out, but in this case it deserves a mention. The apartment that Yan rents, a large apartment in one of the old tonglau (Tang buildings, the smaller blocks, usually about 5 – 7 storeys with no lift), is dark and dingy, a sort of half-living memorial to past tenants. There’s a stark comparison between Yan’s environs, which are apparently designed to provoke restless ghosts, and Jim’s: his is stark, spacious, and modern, an architectural attempt to deny the past.
It was also good to see a couple of 80s actors turning up in supporting roles. Waise Lee, who’s played many a bad guy in such films as Running Out Of Time, here briefly essays a benign brother-in-law and medical colleague. Must have made a nice change, and meant he didn’t have to do a death scene. I admit to being a little surprised, though, to see Norman Chiu Siu Keung playing the sad widowed landlord: the man sticks in my mind as the larger-than-life semi-villain Monkey in the martial arts classic Wing Chun, and to see him sadly eating his lonely dinner, and schlepping around in his slippers, was a grave shock.
Overall, then, an above-average entrant in an overdone genre, notable for some damn fine performances. Notable, too, for being Leslie Cheung’s last film before his tragic suicide in 2003.