22 November 2015 | moviexclusive
By turns gripping and melancholic, this character-driven horror sees a much more assured Nick Cheung at the helm and a typically soulful turn by Cheung at the lead
Who would have thought that Nick Cheung would have such an affinity with the supernatural, so much so that one year after his directorial debut in 'Hungry Ghost Ritual', he would return to the director's chair in yet another horror outing? 'Keeper of Darkness', which he also stars in, finds a much more assured and confident Cheung at the helm of a flawed but much more compelling story compared to last, which follows a professional exorcist who moonlights as a gangster by day as he attempts to find closure with a female ghost while under threat by one of the most vicious spirits that he has ever encountered in his personal and professional life.
Stoic on the outside but tormented on the inside, Fatt is not quite so different from the usual cop roles that Cheung plays, except that this time he happens to be an exorcist blessed (or cursed) not only with the ability to see ghosts whether in the day or at night but also with the knack of being able to communicate with them. It is through this communication that Fatt convinces them to let go of their often tragic past, and in doing so, leave the human vessel which they have possessed as an outlet for their repressed feelings. As Fatt would tell us, the spirits which linger on in our world tend to be either suicides or murder victims, whose grudges with our kind prevent them from moving on to reincarnation and the hope of a better tomorrow.
On one of his assignments, Fatt runs into the spirit of a young girl who was burnt alive with her father Hark (Shi Yan Neng), the latter of whom is hell bent on exacting revenge on the corrupt detective responsible for their appalling fate. Unless Fatt helps him kill that detective, Hark threatens to continue a murder spree which had already claimed the lives of two mediums. And yet though it may be convenient to assume that the film is no more than another battle between the vengeful ghost and the unfortunate ghost whisperer, there is in fact yet another equally significant dimension to Fatt's story – that is, a female spirit named Shuet (Amber Kuo) who has lived in the same apartment as Fatt since he was a kid and whom he has grown to fall in love with.
Shuet is an intriguing addition all right, and thankfully, Yeung Sin-Ling's screenplay nicely fleshes out the unlikely connection between them through multiple flashbacks that adds poignancy to the emotional dilemma which both Shuet and Fatt have to confront in the later half of the film. Without giving away too much, a good part of it has to do with Fatt's clinically depressed mother (played by Karena Lam) and the dingy apartment that they move into with a history of its own. Besides Shuet, Fatt's lonely existence consists of his loyal assistant Chung (Louis Cheung), a boastful self- important gangster type who provides some degree of comic relief, and is interrupted by the presence of rookie reporter Ling (Sisley Choi), who is hungry to capture some ghostly phenomenon on camera to boost her career standing.
The multitude of supporting characters and their respective arcs with Fatt do make the central narrative more diffused than ideal, but by and large, Cheung succeeds in painting a portrait of a tragic loner who draws on his own pain to help set free the lost and wandering spirits of our world while remaining trapped by his personal childhood demons. Cheung's soulful portrayal is the key here, drawing us into his tortured soul and opening the way for us to understand that of those which have left this world whom he communicates with. As a director though, he does struggle trying to balance drama, horror and romance in the same movie, but those shortcomings do not distract from his own otherwise much stronger lead performance that is the very emotional anchor of the story.
Yet even though he may not be on the surest footing, there is still much to praise about Cheung's ambition and achievement in his sophomore feature. Most significantly, his attempt to fuse the supernatural with the real world as we know it is hauntingly captured in phantasmagorical images that recall what the Pang brothers had created in 'Re-cycle' but in a much more evocative fashion. A particular standout sequence is one which sees Fatt go about his routine of bringing candies for ghosts wandering in one of the dark alleyways in Hong Kong – alternating between what Fatt sees and what someone without the gift of the third eye would, Cheung sharply evokes what it means to have spirits walking in our midst. In contrast, a later sequence that has Fatt immerse himself into the spiritual realm to search out Hark sees Cheung go all out in CGI to recreate the infamous Kowloon Walled City, although that bit of excess with digital trickery proves the law of diminishing returns.
Still, there is no doubt that 'Keeper of Darkness' is visually distinctive in its own right, including the sight of Cheung with a prodigious crop of white hair and a body covered in Mandala tattoos. Also notable is how Cheung avoids cheap jump scares and instead goes for slow-burn sequences that build dread and tension, gaining its horror stripes the hard-earned way. Even though he might have taken some time to segue from acting to acting and directing, that time since has likely paid off, if not in terms of experience than for being able to call in favours from the likes of Andrew Lau, Shawn Yue and even Jacky Cheung, all of whom appear in glorified cameos here. And though he is still a much better actor than director, Cheung's sophomore outing as the latter is a marked improvement from his last, proving himself yet again to be the keeper of the - especially in recent years - dying Hong Kong horror genre.