12 July 2014 | moviexclusive
Nick Cheung's decent acting and direction can't save a muddled and unoriginal script that confounds and confuses when it should scare and terrify
Frankly, we didn't figure acclaimed Hong Kong actor Nick Cheung would make his directorial debut with a horror film - after all, the Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Horse Awards Best Actor is better known for his intense performances in Dante Lam's cop thrillers or even for his comedic roles in Wong Jing's gambling comedies. Unfortunately for Cheung, his greenness to the genre works to his disadvantage as a novice director, and it suffices to say at this point that 'Hungry Ghost Ritual' fails on many counts from being a well-made horror.
Scripted and produced by 'The Wedding Diary's' Adrian The, the Seventh- Month themed story has Cheung playing Zonghua, the prodigal son of the owner of a Cantonese opera troupe who returns home after a failed business venture in China. Zonghua is greeted warmly by his father Xiaotian but somewhat less so by his half-sister Jing Jing (Cathryn Lee) - though the reason for this isn't clear at the start, nor for that matter, by the end of the movie. Instead, Zonghua spends more of his time with the lead actress of the troupe, Xiaoyan (Annie Liu), who is a lot more accommodating and encouraging than Jing Jing ever is.
At the same time, a parallel narrative has veteran actress Carrie Ng playing the lead actress of another Cantonese opera troupe whose master sidelines her for her younger protégé when she has an accident onstage and ends up spraining her ankles. It isn't until the very end that we are told just how this secondary plot line fits into the central story, which predictably becomes the raison d'etre for the hauntings which plague Zonghua's troupe after a sudden stroke renders his father incapacitated in hospital - not only does Zonghua begin to see ghastly faces along the street, he also receives ominous gifts (e.g. offerings for the dead) and narrowly escapes death a couple of times.
But the real kicker is when Xiaoyan gets possessed by an evil spirit which must have seen one too many exorcism movies from the West. Yes, much to Zonghua's horror, she starts contorting her body the way Linda Blair used to in 'The Exorcist' and countless other imitations and knockoffs since then. The thing which puzzles Zonghua even more is that each time she does it, she wakes up from a trance-like state and claims that it is merely a medical condition which she has suffered from since young. Needless to say, Zonghua isn't convinced, and starts doing some 'Paranormal Activity' by installing video cameras around his house to record (well) the paranormal activities going on around him.
If almost all of the film's horror tricks sounds familiar to you, that's because it actually is. Borrowing from the aforementioned classics of the genre, Cheung combines elements from the typical 1990s Hong Kong- styled horror films with tropes from these recent luminaries. Alas originality (or the lack of it) is not the movie's greatest flaw; rather, it is a lack of coherence that ultimately undoes the entire premise. Sure, we know there are spirits going around, but one never gets a clear idea of just who is doing the possessing or for that matter why. At one point, Jing Jing is possessed; then it's Xiaoyan's turn; and later on apparently everyone else in the troupe, except of course Zonghua. Even up till the last frame, one keeps waiting for these answers, but it seems those are questions which the film can't quite answer for itself.
To his credit, Cheung does a decent job building and sustaining an air of intrigue and foreboding throughout the movie; but without a satisfying enough resolution which explains in no uncertain terms just how the events are meant to make sense as a whole, his film doesn't afford his audience the closure that one expects. Those looking for a good scare should also note that it isn't anything that you haven't seen before, the moderately interesting premise of spirits returning for the Seventh Month opera barely explored before descending into another standard-issue possession thriller. It isn't ritualistic, but this 'Hungry Ghost Ritual' sure feels awfully formulaic.