AKA: The Ghost Festival
Director: Nick Cheung
Writer: Nick Cheung, Adrian Teh
Cast: Nick Cheung Ka Fai, Annie Liu, Carrie Ng Ka-Lai, Cathryn Lee, Lin Wei, Eric Chen, Karena Teo
Running Time: 82 min.
One of the most recognized names in Hong Kong cinema today is Nick Cheung (That Demon Within), an award winning actor with a chameleon-like ability that’s applied to any role thrown at him. It’s not surprising that one day Cheung would step behind the camera and direct a movie himself, which brings us to his directorial debut, Hungry Ghost Ritual, a film that he co-write with Adrian Teh.
While promoting Hungry Ghost Ritual, Cheung revealed that the film was sort of an accident: when a group of investors approached him with a detective project, to which he “jokingly” told them “maybe I’ll star in a horror film instead.” To his surprise, and perhaps dismay, the investors reworked the project into a horror film and approached him again. This time, out of respect for the investors – as well as not going back on his word – Cheung reluctantly agreed to not only star, but also direct the film. The project eventually materialized into Hungry Ghost Ritual.
The title of the film alludes to an ancient Chinese rite, still practiced in certain parts of the world today, called “The Hungry Ghost Festival.” Ancient Chinese folklore has it that July is the month where the gates of hell open up and hungry ghosts roam the earth in search of food. Lanterns are lined on roadsides to illuminate their paths and food offerings are placed to placate these ghosts’ hunger.
Hungry Ghost Ritual opens with an old woman squatting in front of her house burning incense – with food offering neatly piled in front – while her grandchild watches in astonishment as little hungry ghouls roam the street looking for food. This promising introduction sequence was an interesting concept, but unfortunately, the rest of the film is a floundering mess.
Cheung plays Zhong Hua, an entrepreneur returning home from Malaysia after a failed venture with his wife. Zhong is trying to reconnect with his estranged father, Xiaotian (Lam Wai), and his hostile half-sister, Jing Jing (Cathryn Lee), after a lengthy absence. When Xiaotian is hospitalized, Zhong is reluctantly forced into the spotlight to take over his father’s Cantonese Opera troupe.
The introduction of Zhong into the world of Cantonese opera would normally serve as a perfect vehicle for the script writers to introduce the audience to all kinds of ghostly manifestations and back story. There is, of course, the occasional apparition that appears from time to time, such as ghoulish possessed characters able to perform ridiculous contortions (almost laughable at times); objects suspended in mid-air and falling for no apparent reason; and an opera performer hoist in the air and flailing around aimlessly. While amusing to watch, the aforementioned sequences add nothing to the flow of the poorly scripted film. Even sleuthing footage of phantasm from Zhong’s cameras placed outside his sleeping quarter, failed to provide a good “scare” or add more clarity to the confusing plot.
Cheung’s directing leaves the audience wondering what direction (no pun intended) the film is taking. Is Hungry Ghost Ritual a horror movie or a drama with ghostly elements? The relationship between Zhong and his father is a thematic element that was touched on but never explored in depth. This arc would have provided more depth to the sparsely thought out script. Moreover, the back story of Xiaotian’s past – which would help explain the strange occurrences at the opera troupe – wasn’t properly depicted and leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
Normally an accomplished actor, here Cheung seems unsure and at times totally befuddled by his surroundings. I’m wondering if he’s acting in character as Zhong or is it the real-life Cheung seeping through as he is clearly having difficulty making this film. Life imitating art?
Cheung’s directing appears out of focus, poorly paced and everything seems choppy and unstructured. During press conferences, Cheung modestly acknowledged that his direction for Hungry Ghost Ritual was just “OK,” and in later directing projects, he would not act, so he can solely focus directing.
The only bright spot in the Hungry Ghost Ritual is the splendid performance by the seasoned Carrie Ng (City on Fire), as a lead veteran opera performer from Xiaotian’s past. Additionally, it’s a shame there wasn’t more screen time for Annie Liu (Shamo) – Zhong’s love interest – which no doubt would have made the film a bit more interesting.
At the end of the of the day, “directing” and “starring” is clearly something Cheung is unable to deal with.
oneleaf’s Rating: 4/10