Raymond Wong and Pegasus Films return for the Lunar New Year. But this time they’re up to something different. Instead of grabbing a bunch of stars and packing them into a thinly-plotted mishmash. The filmmakers grab a bunch of stars and pack them into a film with an actual story, courtesy of J.B. Priestley and his 1945 play “An Inspector Calls”. Wong produces and co-directs this same-titled adaptation alongside Herman Yau. And they make various changes to Priestley’s dark drama in hopes of creating an entertaining black comedy.
Louis Koo stars as Inspector Karl, the eponymous inspector who pays a visit to the opulent Kau family estate. Where things are not as rosy as they appear. Family heads Mr. and Mrs. Kau (Eric Tsang and Teresa Mo) are prepping an engagement party for their daughter Sherry (Karena Ng), who’s soon to marry handsome businessman Johnny (Hans Zhang). Alas, Inspector Karl informs them that a young woman named Cindy Cheung (Chrissie Chau) has been found dead of an apparent suicide, and he’s got some questions for Mr. Kau.
Mr. Kau previously fired Cindy from her job at his factory after she participated in a labor strike. But that’s not Cindy’s only connection to the Kaus. She was apparently involved with each and every member of the family, from Mr. and Mrs Kau to Sherry, Johnny, son Tim (Gordon Lam in fab hippie dress) and even Tim’s girlfriend, socialite Yvonne Kwok (Ada Liu Yan). Cindy went by different names along the way (Mavis, Snow, May Cheung and numerous others), and the common denominator seems to be that she was constantly screwed by her class differences with the high society Kau clique.
This is a great set-up and the plot moves briskly thanks to Inspector Karl’s constant haranguing, but the overall mix still comes off scattershot and occasionally flat. Various plot threads are introduced but not pursued, and even though the overacting and production design scream comedy, many of the gags are not that funny. The filmmakers do go the black comedy route to make the negative themes more appropriate for a Lunar New Year audience, but the execution doesn’t match their intent.
Also, the actors aren’t all equipped to handle the lengthy, animated repartee. Teresa Mo and Eric Tsang fare best with the talky script, while Liu Yan, sporting her own accented Cantonese, performs decently given her airy character. Less can be said for the rest of the cast. Especially Gordon Lam and Louis Koo, who are required to carry more of the film. As the blustery Inspector Karl, Koo overacts comically but his timing is not impressive.
An Inspector Calls (Ky Tai Than Tham) suffers from a lack of refined performers capable of communicating the nuance between the overacting and double takes. Also, the original play criticized capitalist society by highlighting the hypocrisies of its upper-class characters. But the film softens the material. Rather than make the Kau family the complete bastards they should be. The script tries to make them pitiable or likable, reducing their responsibility for Cindy Cheung’s misfortunes. Also, technical work is frequently below par; the camerawork and editing do little to compensate for the confined sets and dialogue-heavy scenes. And the lackluster cinematography fails to disguise the limited budget. Sound design is also quite poor.
Hold on, there are positives – pretty solid ones, in fact. The story is actually good, though that’s due more to J.B. Preistley than screenwriter Edmond Wong. Chrissie Chau earns sympathy as the woman at the center of the furor. And the choice to obscure her face for most of the film effectively adds mystique. Production design and costumes are inspired, despite the camera not capturing the details that well.
The look of the film is exaggerated and colorful, but with a gaudy air. Kind of like a Tim Burton film in its off-kilter, whimsical detail. Adding to the absurd flavor are the cameos, including a quadruple appearance by Donnie Yen (Chan Tu Dan) as all four members of a pop quartet singing “Sherry Baby” at a party. Also, Raymond Wong plays six background roles – including a mohawked bartender and a woman – and the randomness is welcome.
The filmmakers should have gone further in this oddball, quirky direction but either hedged or just couldn’t follow through. Regardless, An Inspector Calls (phim hanh dong) is a decent attempt at making a different kind of Lunar New Year film. Daring to be different earns polite applause.