Director: Herman Yau
Cast: Anthony Wong, Michelle Wai, Jojo Goh, Bryant Mak, Funaki Ikki, Lam Ka Tung
Runtime: 1 hr 41 mins
Rating: R21 (Violence and Gore)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 10 August 2017
Synopsis: Lam Sik Ka (starring Anthony Wong) is a professor at a prestigious medical school, and specialises in sleeping disorders. One day, his ex-girlfriend Monique (starring Jojo Goh) reveals that her entire family suffers from insomnia and desperately asks for help. Lam Sik Ka begins to study and conduct a weird experiment on her. The story takes an even more horrifying turn with the discovery that the laboratory was constructed on the grounds of a mass grave. A previously hidden connection between the grave and Lam Sik Ka's father begins to unfold…
If you’ve seen ‘The Eight Immortals Restaurant: The Untold Story’, you’ll know why it has become a cult classic for fans of Hong Kong cinema – not only was it ultra-gory, ultra-violent and even borderline sadomasochistic, it did so with an utter disregard for decency, correctness and, some would say, morality. Its director Herman Yau and lead star Anthony Wong further applied those same sensibilities to ‘Taxi Hunter’ and ‘The Ebola Syndrome’, both of which have also achieved cult status and joined the ranks of their predecessor on the list of iconic Category III movies. That was more than two decades ago, and arguably Hollywood movies like ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ and even Taiwanese ones like this year’s ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’ since have upped the quotient – as well as our tolerance – for gore and violence. And yet, those who loved their earlier collaborations will not be disappointed by this long-in-waiting reunion between Yau and Wong, which is just as, if not more, gloriously macabre and unhinged with its depictions of beheadings, castrations and cannibalism.
Oh yes, there is plenty to satisfy gore-hounds in the last third of the film, which we guarantee you goes positively gonzo in ways that you will never expect. A Japanese soldier gets his penis and balls chopped off and stuffed into his mouth before being decapitated. In turn, the man who inflicts this on him is shot multiple times at close range until his head is literally blown off. A woman starts chewing on her own flesh from her arm, before being eaten by a man who takes her arm off entirely. Rest assured that Yau has not lost his gift for extreme horror after all these years, and the scenes of utter mayhem here are just as horrifying as that in ‘The Untold Story’ (which, for those who remember, involve a man being bludgeoned to death, chopped into pieces, and turned into filling for steamed buns). Yet as much as these visuals excesses are the highlight of this very endeavour, they would nonetheless have necessitated a build-up which justifies their utter anarchy, and this is where co-screenwriters Eric Lee and Yau regular Erica Li fall short.
To be sure, their first half hour begins strongly with a montage of grainy videos over the opening credits that introduces the titular curse afflicting a Malaysian Chinese family patriarch, followed by the entry of Hong Kong neuroscientist Lam Sik-ka (Wong) who is approached by the man’s younger sister (Jojo Goh) to assist him. Sik-ka has been doing research on mice to investigate the effects of sleep deprivation, and is now keen to do the same on humans to see if it is possible for us to live normal lives without the need for sleep. The snarky, self-absorbed and egoistic Sik-ka has however been denied funding by his university’s research committee on the basis of ethical concerns, and is therefore seized by the opportunity to have a real-life test subject. Alas, his potential Patient Zero goes berserk in a hospital when he arrives and dies after running out and being knocked down, so the unscrupulous Sik-ka decides to break into the mortuary, peel off the dead man’s face, retrieve his brain, stuff it into a durian no less, and continue his research back in Hong Kong.
It’s as gutsy and gripping a set-up as it gets, which makes what follows pale drastically in comparison. Within that first half-hour is the suggestion that Sik-ka is himself haunted by some supernatural curse, which causes him to have visions of a scar-faced woman from time to time. Indeed, the scientifically-minded Sik-ka investigates his own affliction by going to a medium who summons the spirit of his late father Lam Sing (also played by Wong), thus giving over to an extended flashback that explains the origins of this curse. That drawn-out back-story set in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong during World War II sees the fluent-in-Japanese Sing reluctantly working for an unrepentant Chinese collaborationist Chow Fook (Gordon Lam) at a ‘comfort centre’ for Japanese soldiers, where a series of events will lead to Sing saving a young woman (Michelle Wai) from denigration, but earning the wrath of her vengeful one-eyed twin sister (also played by Wai) who dies after being tied to a chair and repeatedly raped by multiple Japanese soldiers over the course of a single night.
Arguably, splitting the narrative into two related but distinct halves allows for an interesting juxtaposition in the over-the-top bloody finale, but the impact of such a creative decision is dulled by the weaker 1940s-set segment that does not come close to matching the malevolence of its 1990-set complement. Not only is Lam Sing’s story duller than that of Lam Sik-ka’s, the former as a character is also a lot less interesting and well-defined than the latter. That is evident in Wong’s portrayal of them both – whereas he plays Sik-ka with a chilling undercurrent of menace, Wong doesn’t quite know whether to angle Sing as a hapless sidekick to Chow Fook or a realist who was less concerned with loyalty than survival, vacillating between one and the other without quite coming to a conclusion if we should sympathise with his predicament or accept that it was simply a fateful consequence. Unlike Yau’s extreme horror classics from the 90s, Wong’s character/s here are much more restrained, and without ‘The Untold Story’s’ Wong Chi-hang or ‘The Ebola Syndrome’s’ Ah Kai’s mix of unadulterated anger and psychosis, simply not quite as riveting.
But like we said from the start, if your purpose is really to relive the over-the-top gore-ness of these Yau-Wong collaborations, then ‘The Sleep Curse’ definitely doesn’t disappoint. Notwithstanding, part of the cult appeal of these movies were also the social anger that they tapped into as well as the fun of watching Wong go completely unhinged as a psychopath, both of which this latest falls short. Arguably, it was always going to be an uphill task for ‘The Sleep Curse’ to achieve the same cult appeal as its predecessors – not only because audiences’ sensibilities have changed over the years but also because of how the cultural context has evolved. In that regard, Yau’s throwback to his earlier classics is probably best appreciated as that, and as long as (or unless) you’re in a nostalgic state of mind, you’ll enjoy this for the ultra-gory exploitative bit of entertainment it was intended and lives up to be.
(As gory and violent as their 90s cult classics, Herman Yau and Anthony Wong's reteam two decades later nevertheless probably won't achieve the same cult appeal, because of its relatively weaker narrative and its less unhinged characters)
Review by Gabriel Chong