In Hong Kong a dozen strangers board a bus headed for the Tai Po district. But once substitute driver Suet (Lam Suet) drives through the Lion Rock Tunnel, crossing from Kowloon into the New Territories, the passengers suddenly find the city is completely empty. Literally everyone but them across Hong Kong has vanished without a trace. Three students depart the bus only to succumb to a strange illness that rapidly putrefies their bodies in gruesome fashion. While ageing gangster Wong (Simon Yam) and superstitious insurance broker Ying (Kara Hui Ying-Hung) trade conflicting theories as to what is going on, twenty-something Chi (Wong Yau-Nam) returns to Kowloon hoping to find his missing girlfriend. He forms an uneasy bond with fetching but mysterious Yuki (Janice Man) who anxiously seeks her boyfriend. Instead they find the laws of time and space gone awry while strange masked figures lurk menacingly on the streets. Things only get weirder the next day when everyone re-groups at a restaurant. Tech expert Shun (Chui Tien-Yu) intercepts a mysterious signal beamed seemingly from outer space. It sounds awfully familiar to nerdy music fan Wai (Jan Curious), but can the group stop bickering, turning on each other or indulging petty grievances long enough to find a way out of their apocalyptic predicament?
Known for provocative social satires like the award-winning Made in Hong Kong (1997) and Durian Durian (2000), Hong Kong art-house hero Fruit Chan also crafts the occasional horror film. Most notably Dumplings (2004), his divisive segment of the anthology film Three... Extremes (2004) later given a separate theatrical release, though Chan also made Don't Look Up (2009) a remake of a popular Japanese title and Tales from the Dark (2013). With The Midnight After Chan crafts his most audacious and iconoclastic attempt to meld horror, absurdist comedy and social commentary yet. The results will not be to everyone's taste. Based on the popular internet novel 'Lost on a Red Minibus to Tai Po' penned a pseudonymous author called Pizza, the film boasts the kind of high concept premise that is typically J.J. Abrams' bread and butter. The plot plunges a cross-section of Hong Kong city archetypes into a darkly comedic Twilight Zone-ish scenario piling weirdness upon weirdness. Chan plays around with Asian horror tropes, messing with his characters' minds along with those of genre-savvy viewers while treading a razor-thin line between the nightmarish and plain ridiculous. Not many horror films can segue from exploding bodies and a necrophiliac rape scene to a full-on cheesy dance number where the cast reinterpret David Bowie's 'Space Oddity.' It is implied the lyrics hold a vital clue but since the Cantonese characters have no idea who Bowie is, they remain none the wiser.
The Midnight After does not weave silliness for the mere sake of being silly. The film's dark satire taps an urban paranoia still lingering in Hong Kong post the SARS epidemic and the handover from British colonial rule to mainland China. Chan presents an ensemble of hustlers, losers, hipsters and street punks as representative of a community fractured by self-interest, nihilism and an inability to empathize. Every character in the film clings stubbornly to their own selfish goals even in the face of the apocalypse. Without lapsing into didactic hectoring, the film makes its point that Hong Kong has lost its sense of community. The satire is parochial, laden with in-jokes about local life unlikely to play as well outside Hong Kong. Nonetheless The Midnight After is briskly paced and consistently engaging with vivid performances across the board from veteran Simon Yam, former Shaw Brothers kung fu star turned multiple award-winning dramatic actress Kara Hui Ying-Hung, comedy stalwart Lam Suet, a plethora of photogenic young leads and scene-stealing Cantopop star Jan Curious. The deal-breaker for non-HK viewers is that Chan is clearly more interested in weaving metaphors than clarifying his story with anything so mundane as a logical explanation. Multiple theories are aired throughout the movie but the climax satisfies chiefly on an allegorical and emotional level whilst leaving more loose ends than a bucket of spaghetti. By turns funny and creepy (including one especially vivid and unsettling scene where the characters debate how best to deal with a rapist in their midst), The Midnight After frustrates and intrigues in equal measure but remains a pleasingly ambitious, thought-provoking and unique experience.