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Ghost and the City: Hong Kong Ghost Films

Written by Siu Heng Tell a Friend

Ghosts are no strangers to Hong Kong cinema, especially in the horror genre. Horror films often feature supernatural beings such as vampires, zombies, and demons. Occasionally these "ghosts" are actually faked by other characters or generated by the characters' hallucinations. Ghosts, real and pseudo ones, also exist in other genres such as romance, action, and even comedy. Some of them have fierce appearances, while some just look the same as human beings. We find them frightening not because of how they look, but what they represent. As individuals, as members of a society, or as residents of a fast changing city, we all need to repress or abandon certain things in order to progress or simply survive. Yet they remain an integral part of our lives and environment, and when they return, they haunt.

The Pang Brothers' Re-Cycle (2006) offers a sophisticated example, but a simpler film like Inner Senses (2002), which focuses on only personal aspects of repression and abandonment, may illustrate this better. Directed by Law Chi Leung and produced by Derek Yee, the film stars Karena Lam as Cheung Yan, a young woman who always sees ghosts. She moves to a new apartment where she meets the landlord's wife and child who died in a landslide. Her psychiatrist Jim Law (Leslie Cheung) believes that these "ghosts" only exist in her imagination. Yan comes from a broken family and fails in romantic relationships. She suppresses her resentment towards her parents and ex-boyfriends, and these negative emotions return as ghosts. While Jim successfully pulls her out from the abyss, he starts to see ghosts himself. Rumor has it that Leslie Cheung was haunted by ghosts after starring in Inner Senses and he committed suicide one year later.

Ann Hui's debut feature, The Secret (1979), a classic in Hong Kong New Wave Cinema, also explores how repression causes horror, which should not be a new idea for those who have some basic knowledge of Freudian psychology. Ann Hui wittily turned a real life murder case into a clever suspense-thriller. Young doctor Yuen (Alex Man) and his fiancée Lee (Teresa Chiu) are found dead, and people suspect a half wit (Norman Tsui) living nearby to be the murderer. However, Lee's ghost soon appears in the house where she used to live with her blind grandmother. Her best friend Lin (Sylvia Chang), also Yuen's colleague, decides to investigate the case, and finds out that Lee was pregnant with Yuen's child. Ann Hui's cinematic techniques help a lot in exciting fear. However, viewers find the film frightening also because it exposes how their discrimination against pre-marital pregnancy victimizes unmarried expectant mothers like Lee, especially when pre-marital pregnancy was taboo in the 1970s.

Cheang Pou Soi's Home Sweet Home (2005) also evokes fear by surfacing hidden victimization in the Hong Kong society. Cheang has made a few horror movies, such as Horror Hotline (2001), New Blood (2002), and Death Curse (2003), and Home Sweet Home shows greater concerns over social issues than his previous films. The film starts with May (Shu Qi) moving into a new housing estate with her husband (Alex Fong Chung Shun). Her son soon gets kidnapped by a ghost-like creature, a hideously deformed woman (Karena Lam) whose son died in an accident during the demolition of the slum the new estate replaced. She reminds us that realty business and urban re-development, which many Hong Kong people are proud of, actually build upon the exploitation of the lower classes. Return of the oppressed, whether in the form of a ghost or a monster, is the underlying cause of horror.

Applying this kind of symptomatic reading to uncover political allegories, Hong Kong ghost films before 1997 are quite telling of people's political apprehension. The period from the mid-1980s to early 1990s saw a resurgence of the horror genre in Hong Kong cinema. Famous examples include the Mr. Vampire series (1985-1992) starring the late Lam Ching Ying as a Daoist priest and the A Chinese Ghost Story trilogy (1987-1991) directed by Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tung. Critics read the phenomenon as an expression of Hong Kong people's collective fear for the 1997 handover. The idea of Hong Kong as an integral part of China returned after over a century of dormancy under colonial rule. Finding this fact haunting, at least subconsciously, Hong Kong people channel their hidden anxiety through movies, explaining the prominence of the horror genre in this period.

Less ghost films, and actually less Hong Kong movies, have been produced since the mid-1990s. Wellson Chin's Thou Shalt Not Swear (1993) and subsequent ghost films, Andy Chin's 1:00 A.M. and its sequels, and Herman Yau and Nam Yin's Troublesome Night series are some examples, but very few of them gained popularity. In most of these ghost films, the dead return because of the extreme love or hatred they experience when alive. In that sense, ghosts do not differ from human beings much. On the surface, fear is caused by their grotesque appearances or destructive acts, but deep down horror actually comes from the causal relationship between tragedies and extreme sentiments that we are capable of but refuse to admit.

Extreme love and hatred can account for the ghostly happenings in Visible Secret (2001), directed by Ann Hui who finally returned to ghost films after The Secret and The Spooky Bunch (1980). In view of the film's success, Ann Hui produced Visible Secret II (2002), directed by Abe Kwong who wrote Visible Secret and other ghost films including Thou Shalt Not Swear. Visible Secret begins with a traffic accident that causes the beheading of a man (Anthony Wong) whom viewers expect to see again in the film. 15 years after the accident, hairdresser Peter (Eason Chan) meets a nurse June (Shu Qi) who has the ability to see ghosts. Peter can never make clear whether people around him are human beings, ghosts, or human beings possessed by ghosts. If ghosts are just human beings returning in a different form, failing to distinguish man and ghost sounds quite sensible. Peter, who has no clear objective in life, looks more like a living corpse than the ghosts in this film who have missions to complete!

Visible Secret is set in Hong Kong's Western District, much older and shabbier than the typical Hong Kong urban areas full of high-rises. Forgotten spaces in our city provide a perfect ghostly setting. Other than his debut feature Finale in Blood (1991), Fruit Chan seldom makes ghost films, but the urban spaces in his famous Made in Hong Kong (1997) look just as ghostly. The gloomy corridors of the public housing estates where the protagonist Chung Chau (Sam Lee) lives exude an eeriness that exists in many horror movies. The film ends in the cemetery, a ghostly space that Fruit Chan often invites the audience to compare with housing estates. In that scene, Chung Chau's voiceover continues even after he has died. Is the story told from a ghost's point of view then? Just like old public housing estates and cemeteries, Chung Chau is part of our city despite people's reluctance to acknowledge him. He and other oppressed minorities, such as the unmarried mother in The Secret and the monster in Home Sweet Home, bring an uncomfortable feeling to those who deny their existence.

Stanley Kwan's Rouge (1988) offers an interesting twist to the idea of the ghostly urban space. Ruhua (Anita Mui), a prostitute in 1930s Hong Kong, committed suicide with her forbidden lover Chen (Leslie Cheung) and has waited for him in the underworld for half a century. She then decides to go find him in the mortal world, where she meets newspaper worker Yuen (Alex Man) and his girlfriend Ling (Emily Chu). The film keeps switching between 1980s Hong Kong and Ruhua's memories of the aestheticized 1930s. While contemporary audiences find Western District or the old housing estates ghostly, Ruhua sees the contemporary city as daunting. Both forms of time-space dislocation reflect the same phenomenon: our city changes too rapidly.

In the course of urban development, the city not only victimizes people like the deformed woman in Home Sweet Home, but also abandons more than we can remember. The Pang Brothers' Re-Cycle, though not a typical horror movie, contains many details that echo with other horror films tackling the "ghostly space", which is actually the literal translation of the film's Chinese title. Angelica Lee, who first worked with the Pang Brothers in the acclaimed horror film The Eye, plays Ting Yin, a popular author who is transported to a mysterious world where she comes across characters she had created and abandoned. An old man (Lau Siu Ming) tells her that she must go to "The Transit" to leave this ghostly place, and a little girl (Tsang Nga Kei) accompanies her from one desolate world to another in this inexplicable space...

The Pang Brothers employ new CG technologies to create slums which resemble Hong Kong's demolished walled city. Other details in the film - coin parking meters, an outdated taxi model, 7-story public housing buildings (which also appear in Made in Hong Kong), an old-fashioned Ferris Wheel from the Lai Yuen theme park that closed down in 1997 - are quickly disappearing, if not already gone, from our city due to urban development. What we abandon in the name of progress, like Ting Yin's discarded characters, emerge in ghostly forms. While the city needs to expel the out-dated and old-fashioned in order to become a modern metropolis, Ting Yin has abandoned more than just fictional characters and toys, which she also sees in this eerily beautiful space. She indeed shares the same feeling of being haunted as Cheung Yan from Inner Senses, because personal experiences have been "recycled" into an unfamiliar form.

Repression and abandonment exist in both the personal and the collective dimensions, making Re-Cycle very illustrative in explaining how the familiar return as the unfamiliar to evoke a sense of ghostliness. Necessary evils for the city, repression and abandonment will continue to bring us more ghosts, until we too become ghosts some day.

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Published August 26, 2006

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