An exploration of the Hong Kong Supernatural Reality Documentary genre…
When it comes to modern Asian supernatural cinema, for most audiences what springs to mind will be the likes of Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water from Japan, the Whispering Corridors series and A Tale of Two Sisters from Korea, or perhaps Shutter and the likes from Thailand. It’s fair to say that, the odd hit like The Eye aside, Hong Kong has never really been part of this recent wave of popular long-haired, vengeful female ghost flicks, and is still mainly known internationally for its action thrillers.
Sadly, this is largely due to the fact that the Hong Kong ghost genre has suffered this century from the increasing closeness with and reliance upon the Mainland Chinese market which has come to overshadow the territory’s cinema, and which is notoriously censorious when it comes to horror. As a result, Hong Kong ghost genre production has been in decline, and very few of the small number of the films from the last twenty or so years have been released internationally or have even made it to film festivals. This is a shame, as Hong Kong has a rich tradition of supernatural cinema, and away from much-loved martial arts-horror crossovers like Mr Vampire and Spooky Encounters has produced a long list of ghost films with a very different flavour and themes to Ring and its many remakes and rip-offs – Hong Kong supernatural films do often deal with very specific local themes and concepts of the supernatural and Taoism (whether authentic or wackily interpreted for the screen), rather than sticking to the more globally digestible urban legends and curses of ghost films from Korea and Japan.
On the plus side, while being a bit more locally-focused might make Hong Kong ghost films less of a potentially commercial prospect for distributors and programmers around the world, this does mean that they can be a bit more varied, and for those who know where to look, there are some very interesting and fun spookfests out there waiting.
‘Supernatural reality documentary’ films
With this in mind, one of the most intriguing and entertaining Hong Kong supernatural cinema forms is the ghost documentary, or perhaps mockumentary, depending on how far viewers are willing to stretch their disbelief, explorations of ghoulish legends and incidents, either in a straight-faced, reality-TV format or a more exploitative Mondo or Blair Witch found-footage style. These cover a wide variety of subjects, from haunted murder scenes with a true-crime tie-in, through to sinister abandoned houses and the locations of ancient spirit sightings or curses, and can be linked to obscure old rituals and beliefs which are supposedly still being practiced, or dates in the calendar like the Hungry Ghost Festival in September. Often, they do not limit their scope to Hong Kong, but focus on other parts of Asian, in particular Thailand, which has long been a staple location for Hong Kong horror films, being depicted as a hotbed of exotic supernatural action and strange black magic rituals, with leering shots of prostitutes generally being thrown in for good measure.
The background for these films is rooted in ghost television and radio shows, which have long been popular in Hong Kong, and still are to this day, often with a phone-in component in which viewers or listeners call in and relate their own spooky experiences, getting advice from experts in the supernatural – key examples are Unbelievable and Horror Hotline, which have both been adapted for the screen, as will be discussed further below. Linked to this, the format for these films tends to be similarly presenter driven, usually by a ghost expert or Taoist master, who visits creepy locations and recounts their generally bloody histories, then goes on an after-dark tour, inevitably accompanied by young actresses or models who provide eye candy while getting scared and screaming a lot.
The appeal of making such ‘supernatural reality documentary’ films, as they are often called, for producers is obvious, being cheap to shoot, coming with a built-in audience and being equally watchable at home or in cinemas. While some are relatively genuine in their attempts to explore their subjects, others lean more towards the likes of Faces of Death and Shocking Asia in terms of getting as much sensationalist content on camera as possible, which usually translates into shots of dead bodies and crime scene photographs that, whether real or not, are played for maximum exploitation value, usually earning them Category III ratings.
While there have been a handful of one-off films or feature-length TV or online shows and documentaries, there have been three key franchises which have managed domestic cinema and home entertainment releases: The Supernormal, The Unbelievable, and The Cases.
Originally released back in 1992, The Supernormal was a massive box office hit in Hong Kong, pulling in more than HKD$11 million, and was directed by Lo Ting Kit, his debut feature after working in various production positions on the likes of A Better Tomorrow II, Job Hunter and True Colours. The film focuses on supernatural and spiritual expert Li Chu Ming, and follows him as he explores various cases in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan, also featuring Taiwanese actress Joyce Ngai, probably best known for her role in Ringo Lam’s 1983 directorial debut Esprit d’Amour. Rated II, the film is considerably less exploitative than many of those which would follow, and has much more of a focus on religious beliefs and fox spirits, with a section dedicated to the story and deification of Wong Tai Sin, a Taoist figure later known as the Red Pine Immortal. The film does feel like a genuine attempt to explore links between folklore and modern Hong Kong culture, and while some of its dramatic recreations are a little jarring, The Supernormal is a fascinating document, if not quite a documentary, and is well worth seeking out.
Unsurprisingly, The Supernormal 2 followed in 1993, again directed by Lo Ting Kit, and with Li and Ngai this time joined by Lily Chung, who would go on to star in an impressive list of Category III shockers, including Red to Kill, Daughter of Darkness, Eternal Evil of Asia and other questionable classics. The film served up more of the same, with Li investigating fox spirits and reincarnation, travelling to Taiwan and Japan in the process. Despite being another fairly authentic effort, the film unfortunately failed to match the success of the original, only pulling in around HKD$5 million – The Supernormal 3 didn’t arrive until 2018, though was notable for featuring an appearance by the legendary Sonny Chiba.
The Unbelievable sprang from a highly successful Hong Kong television show of the same name, which first aired in 1996, and which generally focused on hosts and guests visiting haunted locations and experiencing ghostly goings-on, often complimented by dramatic recreations of past events. Initially hosted by actor Simon Liu, easily one of the most prolific supporting actors in Hong Kong, and who featured in pretty much every instalment of the awesome, 19-strong Troublesome Night franchise, as well as Pang Ho Cheung’s Vulgaria, frontman duties were taken over by actor, DJ and dessert chain store owner, Spencer Leung, who quickly became synonymous with the show, heading it up for many years. A large part of the success of The Unbelievable was down to its level of audience interaction, encouraging viewers and fans to get in touch with their own stories, and involving a wide variety of experts in its exploration of discussions of real-life incidents, hauntings, reincarnation and the unexplained in general. The show also benefits from having a reasonably balanced take on the supernatural, and though clearly aiming at being entertaining rather than factual, it gained a sense of authenticity through not always overplaying its hand.
The first film instalment of The Unbelievable arrived in 2009, directed by Chan Tat Nin and following Taoist Master Szeeto and bit-part actress Rachel Chan. Ditching Hong Kong, and to a large extent the format of the original show, the film heads for Thailand (‘an exotic country’), and is far more Mondo in nature, with genuinely shocking opening scenes involving footage of the cleaning up of corpses following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami – quite what this has to do with the supernatural is never made particularly clear, though it’s certainly distasteful in the time-honoured Faces of Death tradition, and this, along with some odd scenes involving a transsexual resulted in the film deservedly receiving a Category III rating. This aside, the film, for the most part, consists of Rachel Chan and other female participants taking part in ghost summoning rites and the like, generally in the dark and accompanied by lots of screaming, though the entertainment factor is upped considerably by a sequence in which Szeeto is strong-armed into paying off a fraudulent Thai shaman after being tricked into attending a poison ritual. While, the opening scenes aside, The Unbelievable is a great deal of fun, it was clearly a great deal more exploitative than The Supernormal, not to mention being far less convincing, with much of its content being of dubious authenticity – for better or worse, as this arguably makes it all the entertaining.
Master Szeeto returned for The Unbelievable: Channelling The Spirits in 2012 and The Unbelievable 3: The Skeleton Road in 2014, with Rachel Chan being replaced by Rachel Lam, who featured in Dennis Law’s 2010 schlocker Vampire Warriors alongside Yuen Wah, Chrissie Chau and Pinky Cheung, which was released in the UK with the brazenly misleading title Lesbian Vampire Warriors (honestly, why? A little dignity, please). The films stuck to following their predecessor rather than the TV series, with a considerable amount of footage focused around dead bodies in various situations – generally female and naked, helping to ensure Category III ratings for both. To be fair, all three Unbelievable films are pretty fun, though it’s hard not to see them as an even more tabloid version of the series, and entertaining though they might be, certain scenes do cross the line into the very worst of cheap Mondo debasement.
Released in 2012, The Cases was a Category III-rated challenger to The Unbelievable, focused on Edmond Poon, known as the ‘Ghost King’ and as the host of the highly popular radio show Horror Hotline, which inspired a variety of spinoffs, books, video games and films – most notably the Soi Cheang-directed 2001 outing Horror Hotline…Big Headed Monster, an underrated film that’s far better than its daft title might suggest, and which was apparently based on a real life incident which happened in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Well-known around Asia, Poon has also served as a supernatural consultant on a number of other films, and the ‘ghost DJ’ is generally reputed to be one of the most grounded and reliable experts of his kind.
By 2012, Poon had for many years been one of the most popular ghost experts in Hong Kong, and The Cases (an odd choice of English title, given that the film’s Chinese name translates literally as the far more apt Worship of Ghosts and Gods) saw him teamed with actress Wylie Chiu (Due West: Our Sex Journey), singer Khloe Chu, and Malaysian model Brandy Akiko on a journey to a variety of creepy places in Hong Kong, Japan and Indonesia. Mixing documentary footage, expert interviews and the expected re-enactments, the film covers a wide range of subjects and events, including the delights of menstruation witchcraft, exorcisms, soul grabbing witchcraft, ghostly possession, suicide curses and more, and benefits from having slightly higher production values than The Unbelievable and from striking a more comfortable balance between exploitation and education, scenes at the infamous Aokigahara Forest suicide spot aside – The Cases is certainly gruesome and wild enough in places to earn its Category III rating. Its key strength though is Poon himself, who makes for a very likeable host and guide, always managing to come across as enthusiastic and knowledgeable, keeping a cool head while his female co-stars run around and scream a lot.
The Cases 2 followed in 2016, seeing Poon and Brandy Akiko being joined by Chinese model Yu Xiaonie and black magic expert Frankie Chiu, and this time heading to Thailand and Guangzhou as well as Hong Kong to investigate dark sorcery, child ghosts and burial rituals. The film was another theatrical release, proving the ongoing popularity of Poon and the ghost documentary form, though sadly has been the last instalment in the franchise to date.
Despite the continuing popularity of Hong Kong ghost-themed radio and reality TV shows, there haven’t been any prominent films in the supernatural reality documentary genre since The Cases 2 and The Supernormal 3, though hopefully it’ll only be a matter of time before Edmond Poon or a fellow expert has another big-screen outing exploring dark and sinister mysteries around Asia. While the films above do at times wander into uncomfortable bad-taste Mondo territory in their exploitation of real tragedies and by putting actual dead bodies on screen (allegedly, it has to be said), these films have a lot to offer fans of the weird and anyone interested in a take on the supernatural that’s very different to that seen in western horror films, and all are well worth tracking down.
A special dishonourable mention also goes to the more obscure Malaysian Legend about Hunting Ghost series, which emerged in 2002 and consisted of five films: Spirit in Night, Horror Night, Spirit, The Spirit on Earth, and Catch the Oil Ghost. Directed by filmmaker Tim Tam, who also appears in front of the camera, the films were previously available on VCD, and are now sadly out of print, though clips can be found on the usual video platforms. Whereas The Supernormal, The Unbelievable and The Cases all at least make a semi-genuine attempt to explore their subjects, the Legend About Hunting Ghost films do away with any such niceties, each entry basically following Tim Tam as he gets a bunch of models or actresses to strip down to their bathing costumes and bikinis, talks to them about the supernatural, then persuades them to take swims in lakes populated by swamp monsters or ‘dragging leg ghosts’, or to wander around haunted buildings in skimpy clothes, with the expected results – too bizarre to be true, too terrifying to be anything other than fact indeed.
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Main image: Matthias Oberholzer/Unplash, Andrew Heskins (Collage)