Thursday, July 07, 2016

NYAFF ‘16: Keeper of Darkness

Being haunted by a ghost that looks like Amber Kuo does not sound so bad. In fact, it is rather pleasant. So much so, moving on will be an issue for both the spirit of Cherr and Wong Wing-fatt, the gritty exorcist she “haunts” (for lack of a better term). However, hastening the departure of a very angry vengeance-seeking ghost will take priority over personal karma issues in Nick Cheung’s Keeper of Darkness (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Wong lives on the margins of society, largely maintaining nocturnal hours. He will accept exorcism gigs, but he also seems to have an ambiguous affiliation with a local triad. After video of his latest ghost-busting goes viral, aspiring writer Fong Zi-ling approaches the mystery man, hoping for some sensational dish. She will get way, way more than she bargained for.

The vaguely Lurch looking Hark has been seeking out psychics, demanding they find the man responsible for the brutal murder of his family and killing them when their dubious gifts are exposed. Recognizing Wong is the real deal (The Force is strong in this one), Hark gives him a three-day deadline. With Fong’s research assistance, Wong delves into the 1969 murders, but he intends to disperse Hark rather than facilitate his revenge. However, the clock is also ticking with respect to his relationship with Cher. After years spent lingering on our plane, she is finally due to reincarnate in the days to come. Yet, she worries about leaving Wong alone.

While there is plenty of spooky Hong Kong ghost movie atmospherics going on in Keeper, it builds towards a surprisingly poignant climax, in the tradition of Richard Matheson’s relationship-driven films and novels (such as What Dreams May Come). The pseudo-love triangle-ish kind of thing that develops between Wong, Cherr, and Fong is emotionally intelligent and totally credibly (given the fantastical circumstances). Frankly, Keeper packs a wallop when it fully reveals Wong and Cherr’s backstory.

For his second directorial outing, HK superstar Nick Cheung creates a rather messy world, but there is an eerie logic to it. We have seen plenty of ghost films before, but he and screenwriter Yeung Sin-ling give the genre at least three or four fresh twists. He also looks massively weird with bleach blond hair.

As the ghostess with the mostess, Kuo puts the Demi Moore movie to shame with her sensitive, downright ethereal performance. Newcomer Sisley Choi plays Fong with an appropriate blend of moxie and skittishness. Former Shaolin monk Xing Yu (a.k.a. Shi Yanneng) unleashes a death stare for Hark that makes potted plants and small animals wither and die. Plus, there are at least half a dozen big name stars making appearances in various states of death or possession.

Arguably, Cheung drags things out five or ten minutes past the point the end titles should have been rolling, but it is still a nifty supernatural thriller. There are some genuinely creepy sequences, but it is character that really powers the film. Highly recommended for fans of Cheung and genre-bending horror films, Keeper of Darkness screens this Saturday (7/9) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.