Hong Kong Ghost Stories finds veteran schlockmeister Wong Jing and his protégé Patrick Kong attempting to revive the HK horror genre which has lain dormant since the cycle of Ring (1998) knock-offs a decade ago. After a campy intro wherein a gang of creepy mannequin-like ghosts assemble into a film crew, this two-part horror anthology begins proper with “Classroom”, written and directed by Wong. Substitute teacher Jennifer (Jennifer Tse) takes charge of Form 4E whilst by night avoids an abusive ex-boyfriend who appears to be stalking her. Although Jennifer befriends perky, basketball-bouncing Don Don (newcomer Kimmy Tong), the rest of the class prove rude and rowdy. One night Jennifer discovers the nubile schoolgirls of Form 4E are moonlighting as prostitutes, including Don Don. She confronts the headmistress only to be told there is no Form 4E at the school ever since the class were all burned alive by a tormented student. Shortly thereafter, Jennifer is terrorised by horrific hallucinations and threatening phone calls.
Though refreshingly subdued and serious compared with Wong’s past work in the genre, “Classroom” remains less than subtle in its attempt to shine a spotlight on a supposedly wayward young generation. It also strives for a hysterical reaction to events that aren’t staged well enough to be truly scary. Nevertheless, driven by a sensitive performance from Jennifer Tse, the story proves compelling and races along at a fair clip with some intriguingly offbeat elements. Such as having the one person who believes Jennifer’s crazy story being her stalker ex-boyfriend. Unusually for a Hong Kong horror film, the heroine is a Christian. This results in an interesting subtext as Jennifer rejects her prayer group’s attempt to rationalise the haunting and turns to traditional beliefs, arming herself with a so-called “exorcist club” that only seals her doom.
Drawing on J-horror and manga only with a distinctively Hong Kong touch, Wong indulges in CGI ghost effects (e.g. a pale faced schoolgirl floats in mid-air sprouting a long tongue; another spook seeps out of a cell-phone) that while eye-catching for seasoned HK film fans may prove unpalatable for western tastes. His sleight of hand storytelling yields an appropriate sucker punch, but the plot is occasionally illogical (how come Jennifer meets the ghost girls outside class, in a public place with bystanders?) and lacks real substance.
Story number two, “Travel”, scripted and directed by Patrick Kong, opens as four catty, man-hungry young women - Cheryl (Jacqueline Chong), Mindy (Rose Chan), Mon (Charmaine Fong), and Harriet (Harriet Yeung) - gather at the funeral of their friend Bobo (Chrissie Chau), who died in a car accident while on holiday in Thailand. We then flashback to their coach trip where, while the other girls are eager to grab some Thai boy action, Bobo appears increasingly troubled, especially when policeman-on-holiday Jack starts an innocent discussion on the psychological repercussions of committing murder. It becomes apparent that Bobo was having an affair with Karl (Law Chung-Him), a married man eager to escape his shrewish wife (Stephy Tang). Back in the present, the four friends meet handsome Karl at the funeral and invite him home for dinner, where they receive a nasty shock. But this proves only the first among several delicious twists.
Deftly handled by Patrick Kong, this ingenious and unpredictable tale of karmic retribution proves the film’s saving grace. More of a story within a story the plot actually replays from four different perspectives as it segues from a deceptively silly first half full of crass humour and cartoonishly obnoxious characters, into far more ambitious and unsettling territory. Kong leavens the story with some jarring satirical gags aimed at HK media personalities that will likely go over the heads of most western viewers, but climaxes with a darkly comic yet perfectly satisfying comeuppance for the chief miscreant. Lively performances all round, anchored by solid work from an intense Law Chung-Him and a compellingly nuanced turn highlighting the hitherto unheralded acting talent of gorgeous Chrissie Chau.