21 October 2012 | BrianDanaCamp
THE OCCUPANT – Contemporary Hong Kong ghost story, with laughs
Hong Kong filmmakers have frequently done comic takes on other genres (horror, kung fu, crime, spy, adventure) but often with shifts in tone that can be quite jarring. THE OCCUPANT (1984), however, deftly keeps things under control in its ghost story mixed with slapstick and romantic comedy in contemporary HK. At no point did I feel things going over the top. Most of it makes dramatic sense and is very well acted by its small cast. Yet at the same time, it remains lower key than most such hybrids and never feels truly inspired. Still, I found it charming and was grateful for the chance to see early work by Ronny Yu, Chow Yun-Fat and Sally Yeh.
Sally plays Angie, a graduate student born in Hong Kong but raised in Canada who returns to HK to do her Master's Thesis on "Superstition in China." She meets a goofy real estate broker named "Hansom Wong" (Raymond Wong) who finds her a cheap apartment but insists on hanging around and helping out with her research, all in hopes of getting lucky with her. The reason the spacious apartment is so cheap is that it's haunted by its former occupant, a singer named Lisa Law who is said to have killed her married boyfriend and herself in a confrontation witnessed by the boyfriend's wife, all seen in a flashback supplied by the wife. A sympathetic cop named Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) gets involved when the ghostly activity causes Hansom to be thrown out of a window not once but twice, ruining a neighbor's expensive car both times (but apparently causing no injury to poor Hansom). Chow has to keep running interference between Angie and the comically aggressive Hansom (who never exactly poses a real threat to Angie, who clearly finds him and his attachment to mystical charms amusing).
Lo Lieh (FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH) appears as an ex-cop friend of Chow's and someone with the kind of expert knowledge needed to attempt an exorcism of the ghost, which actually gains possession of Angie at one point (hinting at an edgier direction this film could have taken) and terrorizes poor Hansom in one extremely well-crafted sequence. The backstory involving singer Law is quite poignant, especially when we hear her soft, sad songs.
There are a couple of special effects sequences that are simple but quite effective. Part of me wishes it had been more of a serious, chilling ghost story than a comedy, but at the same time, I enjoyed the comic banter between the three main characters, especially the two future stars of John Woo's THE KILLER (1989), Chow and Sally. Raymond Wong, with a bowl-shaped haircut and big glasses, might prove too much of an annoyance to some HK film fans, but I found him entertaining in a time-honored HK comedy fashion (think the Hui Brothers) and actually something of a believable character, especially in those scenes where he's genuinely terror-stricken. This is the first time I've seen Wong in a starring role, although he's more famous as a producer and I've seen more of his producer credits than his acting credits. Ronny Yu, of course, went on to direct the HK classic THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR and the Hollywood horror films, BRIDE OF CHUCKY and FREDDY VS. JASON.