Review: HUNGRY GHOST RITUAL 盂蘭神功 (2014) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Monday, 15 September 2014

Review: HUNGRY GHOST RITUAL 盂蘭神功 (2014)

2.5 stars
Nick Cheung's directorial debut on HUNGRY GHOST RITUAL gets the spooky atmosphere right and has a promising setup surrounding the Hungry Ghost Festival, but not scary enough when it matters the most.

Ever since Nick Cheung has successfully resurrected his acting career collaborating with Johnnie To in 2004's BREAKING NEWS and subsequent critically-acclaimed efforts with Dante Lam (where he won Best Actor twice at the Hong Kong Film Award for 2008's BEAST STALKER and again for 2013's UNBEATABLE), he has become one of the most sought-after and respected Hong Kong actors working today. So it comes to no surprise that he eventually branches out from acting and tries his hand on directing. Instead of an attempt to direct a crime drama that I'm sure most die-hard fans will agree with me, Cheung surprises a lot of people (me included) by choosing horror genre as his first-time directorial effort. It's kind of odd since Nick Cheung is hardly known for playing a role in the horror genre. Whatever it is, Nick Cheung's much-anticipated directorial debut on HUNGRY GHOST RITUAL tries hard to evoke a classical mix of traditional Hong Kong horror genre with Japanese-style supernatural elements. Let's just say Cheung attempts to go the same arty style that recalled Juno Mak's slow-burn moody vampire horror, RIGOR MORTIS (2013). The good news is, HUNGRY GHOST RITUAL has its fair share of potentials but too bad Nick Cheung fails to capitalize it entirely.


Nick Cheung plays Zong Hua, a failed entrepreneur who recently forced to close down his publishing business in Mainland China and reunites with his family in Malaysia. His father Zong Tian (Lam Wai), who runs a Cantonese opera business, is especially relieved with his long-absent son's comeback but half-sister Jing Jing (Cathryn Lee) looks down upon Zong Hua's failure. Things get worse when Zong Tian ends up in the hospital after a heated argument with Jing Jing. With no one else to guide the Cantonese Opera troupe, Zong Hua is enlisted to become a temporary master for the upcoming Cantonese opera performances until Zong Tian recovers. Even though most of the fellow performers dislike Zong Hua's presence because of his lack of knowledge on the Cantonese Opera traditions, senior performer Xiu Yin (Annie Liu) is kind enough to help him out whichever she can. As the Hungry Ghost Festival is approaching, a series of unexplained sinister events occurred throughout the preparation of Zong Hua-led Cantonese Opera performances especially when Zong Hua himself starts seeing plenty of spirits roaming everywhere trying to haunt him down.

Working with cinematographer Suen Wing-Cheung, director Nick Cheung manages to build spooky atmosphere within the backdrop of the Hungry Ghost Festival effectively. Kudos also goes to Cheung for presenting an outsider's point-of-view (as in the case with Zong Hua's unfamiliarity with the Cantonese opera traditions) by supplying general yet intriguing information about the rituals as well as the culture of how Hungry Ghost Festival really works.

As for the acting, Nick Cheung gives quite a decent performance as Zong Hua. Even though his role doesn't scream award-worthy, at least he manages to make his role worthwhile. Taiwanese actress Annie Liu is generally unremarkable in her acting, but still sufficient enough to pull off an okay performance as Xiu Yin. Veteran actors Lam Wai and Carrie Ng, who appears as an unappreciated opera actress, are quite competent. Malaysian actress Cathryn Lee, in the meantime, manages to pull off an effective performance with her two-dimensional roles as a rebellious teenage daughter and a possessed young girl who behaves mysteriously.

The effects-heavy but surprisingly effective finale involving Zong Hua and Zong Tian encounters the possessed Cantonese opera troupe in the darkened stage area.

While the appropriate spooky mood is there throughout the movie, the same cannot be said with Malaysian producer-and-writer Adrian Teh's underwhelming screenplay. The biggest problem with this movie is its elaborate setup that focuses too much on the random going-on surrounding all the ghost sightings and other supernatural elements, but unfortunately, his screenplay is so slack until he forgets to get to the main point. Imagine you're watching a horror movie and keeps wondering what and why this happens to a certain character but any form of satisfying explanation is kept in the dark until the last-minute revelation. That's exactly how I felt when I watched this movie. And worst still, the way the entire revelation of the supernatural going-on that plagued some of the characters here feels as if they like a last-minute addition to the actual plot. This especially rings true when Teh fails to connect the subplot involving Carrie Ng's character properly with the one involving Zong Hua and his crew.

As a horror movie, Nick Cheung seems to be inexperienced whenever he requires to evoke an actual scare. Most of the scary moments, like the one involved Zong Hua's random encounters with the spirits at the cinema or while walking in the back alley doesn't feel as creepy as they should be. Even the would-be memorable moment of a CCTV sequence featuring a girl acting strangely in an elevator which evokes the mysterious real-life Elisa Lam murder case at Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles on February 2013 fails to generate the necessary scare or tension whatsoever.


Obviously, there's still a lot of rooms for improvement if Nick Cheung ever wanted to pursue his newfound directing career further in the future. As for now, his directorial debut on HUNGRY GHOST FESTIVAL is an average horror picture at best.

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