Pretty tour guide Candy (Irene Wan) heads a group of Hong Kong tourists that include Kuang (Nam Yin, also this film's screenwriter), an unfaithful husband travelling with his mistresses Hsiu Li (Joan Tong) and Ai Pao (Siu Huen), an elderly couple (Tang Pik-Wan and Victor Wong) with a little grandson, fun-loving teenage girls Pat (Cecilia Yiu) and Judy (Yu Sin-Man), edgy cop Hua (Li Zhi-Xi) and his cool-headed mentor, and a group of boisterous triads including Big Eyes (Tommy Wong Kwong-Leung) for a coach trip across the Philipines. Joining the group in Manilla, fellow tour operator Bud (Eric Tsang), who is secretly in love with Candy, leads them through the usual tourist traps, souvenir shops and bars when suddenly, armed terrorists hijack the bus. Held hostage in the jungle, the terrified tourists are plunged into an unrelenting nightmare.
Portly Hong Kong comedian Eric Tsang routinely switches from lovable comedy roles to more dramatic parts in acclaimed thrillers like The Final Victory (1985) and Infernal Affairs (2002). As a director he has proven a consistently successful comic auteur most notably with the trend-setting Aces Go Places (1981) which spawned five sequels. Fatal Vacation saw Tsang swerve into thriller territory in surprisingly grim and brutal fashion. Directed with great skill, though not subtlety, the film upholds Hong Kong cinema's unfortunate tendency towards xenophobic depictions of other Asian nations. Though a pre-title card stresses events here take place in the years before the revolution that ousted corrupt President Ferdinand Marcos, the film presents the Philippines as a hot-bed of violent unrest with gun battles on the streets and the village dwelling freedom fighters little more than glowering, psychotic animals. With the exception of one female villager who befriends Bud, the terrorists – who include child soldiers among their ranks – rape, steal and kill with no qualms whatsoever. Meanwhile the government prove no more sympathetic and only make an already tense situation worse, driving terrorist leader Sam (the unfortunately-named Spanky Manikan) to start killing tourists, two by two.
However, both Tsang and screenwriter Nam Yin - who penned such celebrated Hong Kong New Wave thrillers as Prison on Fire (1988) and Full Contact (1992) for Ringo Lam as well as Tsang's later crime thriller The Tigers (1991) – spread their bile evenly. Fatal Vacation also satirizes the crass attitude of Hong Kong's media (who ram a camera in the face of Kuang's pregnant wife while she writhes in agony) and the tourists themselves. They range from petty, judgemental, hypocritical middle class types to triad bully boys. Which makes it harder to sympathize with them once the tone darkens, though Tsang underlines the significance of Li proving one of the bravest characters when the others dismissed her as a whore. Tsang can't resist including some surreal black comedy but despite a few instances of unintentional comedy (as when the terrorists force Bud to perform a karaoke version of the film's haunting theme song) the drama packs a pretty powerful punch. The scene where a sobbing Bud is forced to pull the trigger on members of his own tour group in a variation on the Russian Roulette scene in The Deer Hunter (1978) proves effectively upsetting.
Aspects of the film recall Seventies grindhouse classics like Trip with Teacher (1975) and Last House on the Left (1972). As with those movies a band of savages heap abuse, murder, rape and torture until the city folks fight back. Their inevitable escape attempt unfolds in typically idiosyncratic Hong Kong fashion as the triads improvise a Weekend at Bernie's-style walking corpse, grandma hot-wires the bus and Bud, Li and Hua grab hold of some heavy firepower and go all Rambo on their captors' asses. What follows is a gruelling trek through the jungle with breakneck action, kamikaze deaths and explosions galore. Well shot by cinematographer Jingle Ma, who turned director with slick entertainments like Tokyo Raiders (1998) and Mulan (2009), the film also addresses the then-topical issue of Hong Kong's handover to mainland China in 1997, implying that given other countries have worse problems, home will always be home.