Strange Fruit: New thrills from ‘Tales from the Dark’ director Fruit Chan

By Tay Yek KeakMovies - 28 July 2013 12:00 AM

Strange Fruit: New thrills from ‘Tales from the Dark’ director Fruit Chan

Hong Kong director Fruit Chan is known for staying on the fringe of mainstream cinema.

Many of his films, ‘Made In Hong Kong’ (1997), ‘Durian Durian’ (2000) and ‘Public Toilet’ (2002), feature people on the edge of Hong Kong society such as gangsters, prostitutes, desperados and in the 2002 flick, a guy who was born in a toilet.

At heart, Chan, a filmmaker more attuned to society’s squalor than splendour, is closer in spirit – no pun intended – to being an indie director who is interested in the urbanity of Hong Kong with its warts, quirks, customs, fun, hope, hopelessness and all.

In his latest film, a segment called ‘Jing Zhe’ in the horror trilogy ‘Tales from the Dark Part 1’, he adds in something far creepier and more ethereal.

He puts in ghosts.

More specifically, a young, unhappy spook (Dada Chan) who goes to a traditional “villain hitter” (Siu Yam Yam) to seek revenge against a group of vicious thugs.

‘Jing Zhe’ refers to a period in the traditional Chinese calendar (corresponding to March) when, according to Chinese folklore, the spirits are most active and conducive for curses to be made against enemies. 

'Tales From The Dark Part 1' trailer

This ancient act of “villain hitting”, where people give photos or drawings of their enemies for old women to beat and curse, is still practised in the streets of Hong Kong and has become a cultural heritage.

Director Chan, 54, who moved to Hong Kong from China at a young age, is fascinated by this aspect of his adoptive homeland, a bustling, congested urban city with its past, present and future packed into a heady mix where disparate souls, minds and spirits intermingle.

‘Tales From The Dark’, a compilation of three horror tales, is based on a series of six chilling novels by China-born writer Lilian Lee, best known as the author of ‘Farewell My Concubine’ and ‘Rouge’.

The other two segments are called ‘Stolen Goods’, about a man who steals the urns of the deceased, and ‘A Word in the Palm’, where Tony Leung Ka Fai and Kelly Chen play fortune-tellers who can see the dead. Actor Simon Yam directs ‘Stolen Goods’ while Lee Chi Ngai (2004’s ‘Magic Kitchen’) directs ‘A Word in the Palm’.

The second trilogy, ‘Tales From The Dark II’, directed by Gordon Chan (‘The Four’, ‘Painted Skin’), actor Teddy Robin and Lawrence Lau (‘Lee Rock’), will be released in August.

How did you choose this story ‘Jing Zhe’ for your segment of ‘Tales From The Dark’?

I’ve known Lilian Lee, the author of the novel series, for years. In 2004, we co-wrote ‘Dumplings’, the horror movie starring Miriam Yeung as a woman who tried to stay young by eating very strange dumplings. It was expanded into a feature-length film from a shorter segment in ‘Three… Extremes’. 

Tales From The Dark Part 1
A still from 'Tales From The Dark Part 1'


So, ‘Jing Zhe’ is my second short film in a horror trilogy. Several years later, we had this chance to work together again to make another ghost story. Lilian said ‘Jing Zhe’ was suitable for me. She was right. I read the script and I was very interested in the elements of the plot. It was urban, yet historical and spooky. It fitted my creative viewpoint very well.

How did you prepare for this movie which involved filming at a famous location in Hong Kong that is filled with people?

After reading the script, I had a burning question to ask. Is this practice of “villain hitting” only for women? Can a man go to seek vengeance as well? The main person seeking revenge in the film is a woman. A secondary one, played by Josephine Koo, is also female. 

But as a side plot, I added a vengeful man as well. Before we started the shoot, the crew and I went to the Canal Road Flyover, where the “villain hitters” traditionally gather, to do research. Sure enough, there were men, mostly gangsters, who came to put curses on their enemies too. At first, they were very angry at us for filming this. I told them that it was digital, not real film. Somehow, that calmed them down.

You are known for your realistic social dramas reflecting the everyday life of Hong Kong people, particularly those on the fringe of society. When you direct a horror movie, do you need to change your mentality? 

No. It’s nothing very special or different to me. As long as the film has something that I care about, I'll shoot it as I would with any other genre.

Tales From The Dark Part 1
A still from 'Tales From The Dark Part 1'


Do you believe in ghosts? Are you afraid of ghosts?

I believe the spirit world exists. I think everybody in Hong Kong does. But I am not particularly afraid.

Have you tried “villain hitting” before?

“Villain hitting” is an old Chinese folk custom for people who are weak or helpless or superstitious to vent their frustrations. I respect it, but I don’t practise it. My view about it is like that displayed by Josephine Koo’s character in the film. Although she indulges in it, she’s primarily a bystander. 

You couldn’t resist making a political comment in the movie, right? 

Haha. Yes.In the original novel, there is a scene, but it didn’t specifically mention the name, "Leung Chun Ying”. That is the name of CY Leung, the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong. I added that in. When I shot that scene last year, it was very cold and our society had some problems then. So I just borrowed that name for fun to blame somebody and let off some steam.

Tales From The Dark Part 1
A still from 'Tales From The Dark Part 1'


‘Jing Zhe’ is the last tale in the whole movie, ‘Tales from the Dark’. Traditionally, in a trilogy, that’s usually the most frightening. Do you think ‘Jing Zhe’ is the scariest segment?

Simon Yam’s ‘Stolen Goods’ uses a lot of sharp images and dialogue and is very informative and interesting to the audience. Lee Chi Ngai’s ‘A Word in the Palm’ is a story about the persistence of love, which is fun and easy to watch. All three stories have different styles. I can only say this – as Tony Leung Ka Fai says in ‘A Word in the Palm’, all ghosts have their hang-ups. Which one is the most frightening? Ask the audience.

During filming, did anything scary happen?

We shot late at night during the coldest days of the year in Hong Kong. The only thing scary was our actresses falling sick. Dada Chan fell ill on the first night of shooting, but she soldiered on regardless. On the last night, we shot Siu Yam Yam, who plays the “villain hitter” and she had to lie on the icy road the whole night for a scene and was sick for two months after that.

Do you personally like horror movies? Which horror film has inspired you?

Yes. I enjoy watching horror. But because of the pressure to enter the China market, there have been less made-in-Hong Kong horror flicks. So, ‘Tales from the Dark’ is a very rare HK scare fare. In recent years, the horror movie that has left the deepest impression on me is ‘The Eye’ (2002) by the Pang brothers. The way they shot it was clever and very scary.

‘Tales From The Dark Part 1’ is now showing in cinemas