Heather Langenkamp and Freddy Krueger’s other victims would be jealous of Dr. Lam Sik-ka and his latest patient, because no matter what they do, they cannot drift off to sleep. Yet, they still manage to have nightmares in Herman Yau’s The Sleep Curse (trailer here), which screens at this year’s Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales.
Dr. Lam is a man of science, but not exclusively. He has seen uncanny things and visited his share of mediums. Neither he or his former girlfriend Monique want to end up like her older brother, whose mental collapse due to supernatural sleep deprivation takes place during the prologue. It turns out their respective fathers met the same fate, but it isn’t a hereditary condition. It is a curse dating back to the Japanese occupation.
Quite inconveniently (for a host of reasons), Lam’s decent but passive father Lam Sing was involuntarily recruited to serve as a clerk and translator to the Japanese commander. Part of his duties involve coordinating with Chow Fook, the collaborator managing the local so-called “comfort station.” Lam’s heart aches for the women enslaved there, but when his Japanese masters force him to make a pseudo-Sophie’s Choice, it sets off a chain of very bad karma, which unfolds in a series of flashbacks.
The prospect of using war crimes committed against comfort women as the catalyst for a horror film is admittedly dicey, but it certainly reflects still potent (and officially sanctioned) anti-Japanese prejudices. Intriguingly, the film is also set in 1990, pre-handover, at a time when many Hong Kongers were having nightmares. It is therefore easy to sense ghosts from two eras haunting the film. Initially, Yau seems more inclined to evoke feelings of uneasiness while maintaining a general sense of mystery, until total bedlam breaks in in the third act. We’re talking totally nuts here.
Regardless, in a dual role, Anthony Wong makes a credible Peter Cushing figure as Dr. Lam and is aptly tragic as the ill-fated Lam Sing. Likewise, Michelle Wai also shows tremendous range as both Man Ching and Man Woon, two twins of drastically differing temperaments, separated by cruel fate and Lam Sing. Jojo Goh only has one role, but she still makes an impression playing Monique partly as a femme fatale and partly as an increasingly vulnerable and agitated patient.
Herman Yau is maybe not quite as prolific as Takeshi Miike, but he certainly does not lack for a work ethic or ready financing. Despite turning out a steady stream of hit action movies and comedies, he still exhibits a distinctive touch for supernatural fare. Perfect for fans of the Nightmare Detective franchise, The Sleep Curse screens Thursday night (11/16), as part of Abertoir 2017.