A suicide insurance claim investigation reveals something even more disturbing in this adaptation of The Black House…
Hong Kong writer-director Kim-Wai Yuen follows up his 2016 debut, the FIPRESCI Award-nominated religious drama Heaven in the Dark, with something very different in the form of Legally Declared Dead, a mad, murderous mystery of a film, and an adaptation of Japanese author Yusuke Kishi’s 1997 bestseller The Black House. This is actually the novel’s third big-screen outing, having been made into films in Japan in 1999 and Korea in 2007, and for his take Yuen recruited a fine lead pairing in the legendary Anthony Wong and Karena Lam, who also featured in Heaven, and who has proved herself one of the best and most versatile actresses working in Hong Kong in recent years.
The film opens with insurance agent Yip (Carlos Chan) visiting the rundown home of client Chu Chung-tak (Anthony Wong), only to find the body of his stepson, who it appears has committed suicide. Chu and his wife Shum Tsz-ling (Lam), who is on the verge of going blind, push for an insurance pay-out on the boy’s death, though Yip starts to suspect that foul play is afoot. Yip begins his own investigation, though with Chu’s behaviour becoming increasingly strange and threatening, it soon seems as though his curiosity might cost him dearly.
While not being able to say how faithful Legally Declared Dead is to the original source material, and with previous adaptations being somewhat distant memories, it can certainly be said that the film is a macabre and often nonsensical affair, which starts off seeming like a reasonably straightforward crime mystery before diving headlong into horror. For the right audience, this is no bad thing of course, and the film is packed with enough whacky plot holes and bizarre twists to make it entertaining from start to finish, and if nothing else, it’s never anything even approaching dull. While the film isn’t exactly tense in the traditional cinematic sense, Kim-Wai Yuen does a good job of weaving its many strands and implausibilities into a semi-coherent whole, and it moves along at a fast pace throughout its running time.
A large part of the fun comes from the acting and, not unexpectedly, Anthony Wong is on fine form in another of his trademark maniac roles, shifting between quiet menace and mad howling at the drop of a hat. However, it’s Karena Lam who really steals the film, with a fantastically unhinged performance as Shum, and without wishing to say much about the direction the story takes, as things progress she slowly but surely begins to dominate the film, even managing the impressive feat of upstaging and out-crazying Wong. The slight downside to this is that the other characters don’t really get a look-in, and while this is fine for the eminently disposable supporting cast, Carlos Chan’s protagonist is rather weak, and this undermines any genuine drama there might have been.
The film also drops the ball a bit during the third act, when it abandons any pretence of lucidity, Yuen putting the pedal to the metal and hurtling towards an absurd but enjoyable conclusion. At this point, viewers might reasonably have been expecting an explosion of blood and gore, with the film having until then been rather coy, including several murders and torture scenes which shied away from the gruesome details, presumably as part of building some kind of suspense. Sadly though, Yuen keeps the gloves firmly on through to the end, robbing the film of the impact it might have had – there’s a disappointing sense of a Category III film lurking in the shadow of what ultimately only earned a IIB rating.
Still, Legally Declared Dead is a lively, pleasingly old-school Hong Kong crime mystery horror, and one of the best, and indeed few, examples of its kind from the last few years. Anthony Wong, and especially Karena Lam, are worth the price of admission on their own, and their top-level scenery-chewing is a sight to behold.