Director: Nick Cheung
Writer: Yeung Sin-ling
Cast: Nick Cheung, Amber Kuo, Louis Cheung, Sisley Choi, Xing Yu, Philip Keung, Karena Lam, Lawrence Ng
Running Time: 103 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Nick Cheung has been a presence within the Hong Kong movie industry for over 25 years, but it’s his recent collaborations with director Dante Lam that really brought him to the fore. With scene stealing turns in Beast Stalker, Stool Pigeon, Unbeatable, and That Demon Within, Cheung showed a range and screen presence which hadn’t previously been witnessed. His charismatic turn’s saw plenty of offers coming in, and since playing a conflicted child kidnapper in 2008’s Beast Stalker, by the end of 2015 he’d featured in over 20 productions.
One of those productions happened to mark his directorial debut, with 2014’s Hungry Ghost Ritual. A new Hong Kong horror movie is always welcomed, and just a year prior another long-time HK thespian, Simon Yam, also tried his hand at directing, with the similarly horror themed Stolen Goods segment in the Tales from the Dark 1 anthology. Much like Yam’s effort though, Hungry Ghost Ritual was met with a luke-warm response, and many considered it to be a missed opportunity to recapture the atmosphere of HK horror flicks from yesteryear.
However as the expression goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try try again, and 2015 saw Cheung return to the director’s chair for his sophomore feature, again staying within the horror genre for Keeper of Darkness. As with Hungry Ghost Ritual, Cheung again casts himself as the main character, but this time he’s playing what could best be described as a modern day incarnation of Lam Ching Ying’s Taoist priest from the Mr. Vampire series. Tattooed, tanned, with bleached white hair, Cheung has a unique way of dealing with the spirits and demons who lurk in the Hong Kong shadows – rather than performing any type of fancy Taoist ritual, he sits down and negotiates with them.
It’s a novel concept, but one which works surprisingly well onscreen, as we’re introduced to him having a heated discussion with a possessed woman in an apartment kitchen while her husband watches on. Unbeknownst to Cheung though, the whole encounter has been filmed, and once it’s uploaded onto social media it quickly goes viral, leading to a reporter, played by Sisley Choi, constantly pestering him for an interview. He soon has bigger concerns to worry about though with the appearance of a vengeful spirit, who’s rampaging around killing other masters of the supernatural, due to unjustly perishing in a fire with his young daughter. Oh, and it should also be mentioned that Cheung lives with a ghost, played by Amber Kuo, who thanks to dying in a bathtub leaves a trail of water wherever she goes, resulting in Cheung having to constantly mop his apartment floor.
If that plot description doesn’t seem entirely coherent, it’s because it’s not. This is both the biggest strength and weakness of Keeper of Darkness, in that it successfully recaptures the ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ feel of those older HK movies that we know and love so well. What’s especially charming is that Cheung has recaptured it without even intending to, with the end result coming about more as a by-product of his energetic direction. Of course back then there was no internet to dissect and nit-pick every minute detail of a production, and it’s easy to argue that had there been, many of the movies we consider as classics would probably be passed off as incoherent messes in today’s world. However with Keeper of Darkness, Cheung successfully shows that incoherent messes can still be a lot of fun.
From the outset Cheung seems set to give us a scare filled tale of a vengeful spirit with dark intentions, one which he laces with some quirky black humor to offset the ghastly happenings. Indeed the opening 30 minutes contain at least one effective jump scare, an unsettlingly tense locked in a room with a ghost scene, and a laugh out loud sight gag. However by the time the narrative settles down to allow us some time to know Cheung’s character a little better, the middle of the movie begins to feel more like a supernatural romance, as he rides around Hong Kong with Kuo hovering on the back of his bike, and they pantomime table tennis to each other in the apartment. By the time the focus turns back to the main plot of finding out why the vengeful spirit and his daughter died the way they did, the tone has shifted completely away from the creeping dread of the opening scenes, and goes the route of an action horror flick, complete with chickens being randomly thrown into saunas, and a restaurant brawl with a possessed exorcist.
But are these jarring tonal shifts really a negative? In the context of the way Keeper of Darkness plays out, I’d argue no. Cheung’s movie may be all over the place, but it still feels controlled, and while the events playing out onscreen do pull the viewer in a variety of different directions, asking us to feel horrified, excited, amused, and all fuzzy inside from one minute to the next, a sense of purpose is maintained. The vengeful spirit himself ultimately earns a get-out-of-jail free card thanks to the jarring shifts. An imposingly tall blue spectre, with an oblong like head, the first couple of scenes he appears in deliver a suitable impact of foreboding terror. However the more he appears onscreen, the more anyone familiar with HK cinema will likely begin asking themselves, “Isn’t that Xing Yu’s face squashed and imposed onto the spirits head?” And indeed they’d be right, it is Xing Yu that plays the nemesis of the piece, and once you recognize him, suddenly the spirit just isn’t scary anymore.
Thankfully by the time this recognition takes place, his appearances are no longer expected to make you jump in your seat, as he becomes just another of the many apparitions that populate the world Cheung has created. Which brings us to the effects. All of the ghosts and demons are created with CGI, and look convincing enough to be a part of the environment in which they appear in. There’ll no doubt be purists out there who’ll cry foul that any supernatural movie with CGI shouldn’t be compared to the likes of Mr. Vampire etc., but I’d happily argue that good CGI is better than lazy practical effects. I mean, can anyone really say the vampires in movies like Mr. Vampire 2 spent more than 5 minutes in the make-up room?
It’s not completely perfect, and a scene which requires Cheung to visit the underworld is the only time when the effects stumble, as both the environment and demons become 100% computer generated. The scene is brief and far from awful, however the inclusion of a couple of demons, who seem to have their movements set on a playback loop, damage the integrity, immediately taking the viewer out of the movie. But this is really a minor gripe, with the rest of the run-time more than compensating for the visual discrepancy. By far the biggest strength of Keeper of Darkness is that it looks and feels like a Hong Kong horror movie, complete with all the randomness that they come saddled with. Kuo, a Mainland actress, is even dubbed into Cantonese, which is nothing short of a miracle in today’s climate, which often has Cantonese actors and actresses being dubbed into Mandarin.
While even the briefest amount of time contemplating the events that take place in Keeper of Darkness will likely bring up an endless amount of questions – such as why, if the video of Cheung’s exorcism has become so popular, is a single female reporter seemingly the only person with any interest in him? And why, when Amber Kuo’s ghost character is involved in a car crash, does gravity affect her exactly the same way it affects the other (very much alive) passengers? Far from being a detractor though, these gaps in logic add to the quirkiness of the production, indicating a playful feel that’s reflective of Cheung’s real life personality.
Throw in a bunch of familiar faces from the Hong Kong movie industry, including Karena Lam, Shawn Yu, and perhaps the biggest crowd pleaser of all, Chin Kar Lok as a fellow exorcist master, and the feeling of nostalgia is one that permeates throughout Cheung’s second feature. The final scene in Keeper of Darkness involves a cameo from one of the biggest names in the HK film industry, as a mysterious black suited spirit viewed from afar, hopefully indicating that we’ll be seeing more of Cheung’s exorcist master in a second installment. As a potential Mr. Vampire series for the 2010’s, if we do get a sequel, you can count me in.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10