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Keeper of Darkness

Nick Cheung faces the supernatural in Keeper of Darkness.

Chinese: 陀地驅魔人
Year: 2015
Director: Nick Cheung Ka-Fai
Producer: Claudie Chung, Cheung Chi-Kwong, Law Chi-Leung

Yeung Sin-Ling

Action: Jack Wong Wai-Leung

Nick Cheung Ka-Fai, Amber Kuo, Louis Cheung Kai-Chung, Sisley Choi, Xing Yu, Philip Keung Ho-Man, Angie Cheung Wai-Yee, Karena Lam Ka-Yan, Lawrence Ng Kai-Wah, Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Emotion Cheung Kam-Ching, Ben Wong Chi-Yin, Elena Kong Mei-Yi, Chin Kar-Lok, Shawn Yue, Deep Ng Ho-Hong, Chu Kin-Kwan

The Skinny: Nick Cheung’s sophomore feature is not a consistent experience overall, but it can be an entertaining one if you cotton to Cheung’s frequent story diversions and odd sense of humor. An improvement on Hungry Ghost Ritual, with an unexpected, playful vibe that helps to compensate for its flabby story and direction. With many cameos and much weirdness.
by Kozo:

Actor-turned-director Nick Cheung returns behind the camera with his second film Keeper of Darkness, which turns out to be playful and more entertaining than his previous Hungry Ghost Ritual (2014). Cheung stars as Wong Wing-Fatt, a tattooed, tanned and white-haired exorcist who makes a living dealing with ghosts for possession-suffering folk. When a video of one of his exorcisms goes viral, reporter Fong Zi-Ling (Sisley Choi) approaches Fatt, only to be turned away because he’s not into publicity. However, Ling ends up getting into her own supernatural messes – including running afoul of Fatt’s pet ghost Cherr (Amber Kuo) – which allows Fatt and Ling to form an eventual connection. Meanwhile, supernatural masters are being killed and all signs point to a tall spirit named Hark (Shi Yanneng), who’s pissed off about dying in a fire with his daughter. Fatt also aids ghosts so he’ll help Hark resolve his lingering issues, even if Hark is a meanie who threatens Fatt’s friends. A tough gig, this exorcist stuff is.

Hark has both good and bad reasons for being angry, but it’s ultimately difficult to engage with his story. Keeper of Darkness lacks a strong narrative drive. Rather than introducing characters, putting them into conflict and having them change as a result, the film introduces its situations first, stalls frequently to explicate characters, and finally springs change sometime after everything has gone down. This narrative structure would not earn you praise in a conventional screenwriting class; the script from Yeung Sin-Ling (The Bullet Vanishes) lacks a solid throughline and meanders so much that it obfuscates cause and effect. The film jumps from scene to scene, shifting its attention like a restless child, and only sometimes explains why characters end up where they do. Despite being a supernatural thriller, Keeper of Darkness lacks thrills, and the main conflict – white-haired exorcist and pals take on a pissed-off demon – creates little tension.

However, the film compensates in other ways, like its off-kilter but endearing character work. Despite his dark profession, Fatt has a lighter side, which can be seen in his deadpan jokes and bemused reactions, and Nick Cheung underplays entertainingly. Fatt is a cool customer, and acts swiftly and deliberately when doing outlandish things like throwing chickens into rooms or shocking people with jumper cables. The film’s sense of humor is surprising; Fatt reacts to ghosts that nobody else can see, and there are small digs at local issues alongside the ghostly shenanigans. Unexpected visual jokes occur frequently, some of which deflate tense scenes, while Louis Cheung is amusing as Fatt’s blustery sidekick Chung. Some scares are played for laughs, e.g., when Cherr frightens Ling in Fatt’s home, and the tone of these sequences is closer to Haunted Cop Shop than The Eye. These unexpected, sometimes retro elements aren’t especially noteworthy, but they’re entertaining as small pleasures.

The drama can be a bit random; Hark has the tragic backstory but it’s Fatt and his relationships that dominate the feels. Much has to do with Fatt’s mom (Karena Lam in an extended cameo), who died when he was young but still haunts his memories. Simultaneously, there’s an issue between Fatt and Cherr, which has some link to Fatt’s dead mother, and also an issue between Fatt and Ling, which has nothing to do with anything – but hey, at least she’s still alive! Lots of exposition is required to establish all this, but the film still manages some affect. Also, hats off to Nick Cheung for casting not one but two pretty young girls as romantic interests. Amber Kuo is fine, though this is not her most compelling performance (Kuo is dubbed into Cantonese by Eman Lam of girl group at17), while Sisley Choi is better here than her TVB work would lead you to believe. Many appearances by name actors liven up the proceedings, with one big-name cameo closing out the film.

Keeper of Darkness climaxes with the face-off between Hark and Fatt, but drags on for a while thanks to a couple of long montages that resolve Fatt’s love story (Or is it stories?). Nick Cheung doesn’t establish a solid rhythm or pace, which leads to some mystifying digressions and an overall sloppy tone. This is supposed to be a thriller, so why the long sequences of Fatt and Cherr pantomiming ping pong? These detours prevent the film from being the consistent experience that one might prefer, though it’s clear that Cheung enjoys his whimsical moments. The odd tone also fits the production and character design; the ghosts are ugly CGI-ifed versions of Chinese demons you might have seen in nineties ghost films, and their comic demeanor is also reminiscent of that era. Cinematography is of the gross-pretty variety; the film uses a muted palette that shifts depending on the situation. The result is appropriately stylish and cheap, which helps hide some of the shoddier sets and effects.

With Keeper of Darkness, Nick Cheung seems to be re-imagining old Hong Kong ghost films, with their weird comedy and shifting tones, for the modern era – a valid goal, though Asian horror aficionados may bemoan Cheung’s personal preferences. Unlike in Hungry Ghost Ritual, which was competent but lacking personality, there is a real sense that Nick Cheung is present in Keeper of Darkness – and not just as the lead actor. Cheung’s personality, which can be seen in the actor’s genial personal appearances, seems evident in the film’s sly humor and ardent emotions, and Cheung casts himself in a role perfectly fitting his low-key but quite smart and capable persona. Exorcist Wong Wing-Fatt is a cool character embodied by one of Hong Kong’s standout popular artists, and he’s in a film full of entertaining Hong Kong-style feels. The resulting odd mix may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s unexpected and unique, and a decent improvement for the director. Nick, I take back what I said about you after Hungry Ghost Ritual. We ain’t hatin’. (Kozo, 12/2015)



DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
CN Entertainment Ltd.
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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