Tuesday, November 11, 2014

HK Cinema at SFFS ’14: The Midnight After

It turns out a web novelist by the name of Pizza has captured Hong Kong’s current uneasy zeitgeist with a tale of the Armageddon. As adapted for the big screen, it also involves the challenges of commuting and David Bowie. Hang on tight, because Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After (trailer here) is one heck of a wild ride that screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

Most of the twenty-two Hong Kongers aboard the fateful mini-bus were not planning to be there. Suet, the driver, is covering for a colleague whose wife went into labor. You Chi-chi was anticipating a date with his girlfriend, but she canceled at the last minute. Junkie Blind Fai got on the wrong bus by mistake, whereas the distraught Yuki left a work social outing early after her lecherous boss summarily fired her. Hong Kong is bustling as ever leaving Kowloon, but when they drive through Lion Rock Tunnel towards the New Territories, the teeming masses and incessant traffic mysteriously vanish.

It seems they are the last people left in Hong Kong and the four students who got off at the first stop probably will not last long judging from their sudden symptoms. Trading cell numbers, the core group agrees to reunite in the morning to take stock of the rather dire situation. Soon they are simultaneously receiving bizarre calls that turn out to be the lyrics of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in Morse Code. Then things really start to get strange, as the apparent apocalypse takes on both metaphysical and science fictional dimensions.

Frankly, we never figure out what is going on with absolute certainty, but we get a pretty good lesson in Hong Kong geography before the zombies show up. Reportedly, the film is also loaded with vernacular puns and wordplay that would even be lost on Mainland audiences, let alone Yankees, but it hardly matters. As it is, Midnight is absolutely bursting with madness.

It is also fully stocked with big named stars, including Simon Yam, naturally playing Wong Man-fat, a low level gangster who more or less assumes leadership of the ragtag group, with characteristic flair. Johnnie To repertory player Lam Suet is also perfectly cast as Suet the driver. Ironically, he probably gets bloodier in Midnight than in his recent To outings. Janice Man (or JM as she is also known, catchy that) is by turns vulnerable and unnerving as the seemingly innocent Yuki. Kara Hui still looks great and maintains plenty of edginess as Mak Sau-ying, a fortune teller-slash-insurance agent determined to do some post-apocalyptic business one way or the other.

Throughout Midnight Chan creates an uncomfortably realistic sense of what the end of the world might really feel like, but unlike Abel Ferrara’s cratering 4:44 Last Day on Earth, he uses it as the foundation of a tense and compelling (though admittedly logic challenged) narrative. Chan Fai-hung and Kong Ho-yan’s adaption of Pizza’s descriptively titled Lost on a Red Mini Van to Taipo nicely balances pitch black humor with moments of deep-seated anxiety-ridden existential drama.

Midinight is unremittingly dark, yet somehow it is still wildly entertaining. It represents a triumphantly off-kilter return to form for Chan, a former stalwart of indie HK cinema who found success producing rom-coms. He certainly doesn’t end the world with a whimper. Highly recommended for a broad cross section of cult cinema fans, The Midnight After screens this Saturday (11/15) as part of the SFFS’s 2014 edition of Hong Kong Cinema.