Director: Jeffery Chiang
Cast: Carlos Chan, KK Cheung, Mimi Kung, Bryant Mak, Shuan Chen
RunTime: 1 hr 37 mins
Rating: PG13 (Horror & Scene Of Intimacy)
Released By: mm2 Entertainment
Opening Day: 28 June 2018
Synopsis: Charlie, a young ambitious property agent joins a successful agency run by wealthy couple, Gordon and Lucy. He soon learns the secrets behind the agency’s success; they specialise in buying up dirt cheap properties after someone has died or been murdered in them, sells them at a higher price without disclosing to the new owners the horrifying truth. Ethical dilemmas soon subside as Charlie enjoys the windfall he makes from every sale. Charlie shrugs off buyers who complain about supernatural happenings and the nightmare they have to endure and continues to basks in his opulent lifestyle. It was not until one of his clients succumbs to the tragic hauntings that he decides to reveal the horrible secrets of his agency.
Herman Yau’s ‘Always Be With You’ was one of the rare Hong Kong horror genre offerings in recent years, which has languished following its ‘Troublesome Night’ heydays in the 1990s and early 2000s.
On its surface, there is potential for Malaysian writer-director Jeffrey Chiang’s latest feature to join that club of disposably entertaining B-movies – its premise of a young ambitious real estate agent who realises he’s been selling haunted apartments is ripe for picking; its cast comprises a mix of up-and-coming stars like Carlos Chan and Bryant Mak as well as recognisable stalwarts like KK Cheung and Mimi Kung; and last but not least, its apparitions are decidedly old-school, made up of actresses in heavy make-up (read: not CGI-ed).
And sure enough, this Chiang’s Hong Kong-Malaysian-Singapore co-production often offers similar unfussy chills and scares, comprising of things that jump out at you while accompanied by sudden loud music. Yet as much as we were prepared to embrace this low-budget effort with fond nostalgia, ‘Buyer Beware’ ultimately demands its own warning to viewers because of an unsatisfactory cop-out ending that threatens to deplete every ounce of goodwill we have towards it.
Nothing in the story up until those last five minutes could possibly have suggested that it was but a nightmare, but hey we’re saying it now so that you won’t feel so aggrieved by the time it finally arrives. Beginning with Chan’s property agent Charlie seeing weird things within the live video he is recording inside an empty flat with a suspicious-looking refrigerator, the story rewinds itself to explain how Charlie came to find himself in such ethically questionable circumstances.
Though one of the best-performing agents in his company, Charlie still isn’t earning enough to pay his father’s hefty hospitalisation bills, so he decides to jump ship to the more lucrative Ho Feng Property, led by the disquieting husband-and-wife couple Gordon (Cheung) and Lucy (Kung). In order to prove that he has what it takes for the job, Charlie decides to ignore his own intuition that there may be something amiss about the high-rise condominium unit he is selling to a family of three (the husband of whom is played by our very own Shaun Chen), and even concocts a fictitious counter-offer from another buyer in order to entice them to seal the deal quickly.
This is but one of the four vignettes which make up the business deals which Charlie comes to clinch in bad faith – there is another involving a two-storey villa which he introduces to his ex-girlfriend Shermaine (Carmen Tong), who is now pregnant with the kid of a married businessman Terence; another involving a unit in a dilapidated public housing apartment block which he sells to his buddy Earnest (Mak); and last but not least, another involving a mansion which his bosses apparently gift to him as a reward for his stellar track record.
Each one is but an excuse for Chiang to choreograph a series of unlucky encounters between the living and the dead – among the more effective episodes is one where the aforementioned family’s young daughter is lured to the balcony to pick up her soft toy while her parents are preoccupied, resulting in a tragic death that Charlie himself almost repeats later on; and then another where Shermaine investigates the strange noises she has been hearing from one of the upstairs bedrooms while alone in the villa. To his credit, Chiang demonstrates a good grasp of building up suspense and dread, so you’ll often find yourselves holding your breath during these tense set-pieces.
Unfortunately, it is also true that Chiang’s storytelling instincts need polish, and this being only his sophomore feature after 2011’s ‘Dilarang Masuk’, the scenes sometimes do not flow well into one another. There is a relatively well-thought out narrative to the movie all right, but the uneven pacing makes the chain of events unintentionally confusing. The last act is also guilty of going off the rails, as Chiang eschews the restraint he had largely demonstrated throughout the rest of the film for throwaway shots of black magic, cannibalism and even gratuitous violence. It does feel like Chiang was trying to follow in the footsteps of horror shlock master Yau, but these excesses only make the film feel even more incoherent.
A film like ‘Buyer Beware’ often doesn’t require much of its actors, and this is no different. Chan puts his natural screen charisma to good use, but there isn’t enough character depth to Charlie for him to put in a compelling performance. Mak is largely forgettable in a supporting role, but it is a joy to see veterans Cheung and Kung manipulate the naïve Charlie.
As is typical of the genre, this film grounds its frights in a morality tale, although it won’t be the first to put a horror spin on the Hong Kong property market. There are enough unnerving moments to make your skin crawl, especially as it plays on your fears of empty abandoned houses with brutal or tragic histories, but not quite sufficient for this to be anything more than an adequate Hong Kong horror offering, not least because of its exasperating u-turn right at the end. So you’ve been warned – keep your expectations low and you might enjoy its low-rent thrills; just don’t go in expecting this to be anything more than an above-average ‘Troublesome Night’-type movie.
(No more and no less than a low-rent Hong Kong horror offering, but a maddening about-turn ending aside, this rare addition to an almost bygone genre still packs some unfussy chills and scares)
Review by Gabriel Chong