Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 01, 2020 2:58 pm 
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For the devotee, not creepy enough

This terminally grisly thriller is something you might not want to watch if you've got a big life insurance policy. To begin with, it says insurance adjusters regard every client as a crook. Next, it might give you some wrong ideas about bumping off relatives to collect, or make you think it's cool to be sadistic. I had a lot of time for the fresh-faced young Hong Kong film star Carlos Chan as insurance salesman Yip Wing-shin. But he hasn't much to do but act eager and worried. And the reason I called this movie "terminally grisly" is it's only grisly at the end. It's Based on Yusuke Kishi’s 1997’s Japanese novel The Black House, which was previously adapted into both Japanese and Korean films in 1999 and 2007 respectively. This probably isn't an improvement. These facts (but not the guess about competition) comes from an informative review for ScreenHK by Casey Chong.

Declared Legally Dead is a good example of slick, highly competent Hong Kong filmmaking without any original ideas. The scenario and direction lack the grace notes and originality to appeal to cinephiles. And there's not enough horror to appeal to genre fans, either. One thing that's impressive: the lush score by Yusuke Hatano, utilizing the Budapest Art Orchestra. Excellent musicians, beautifully recorded and remixed for the film. They had me with the introductory music.

Mr Yip's got trouble. It's not enough that life insurance seems to attract the sadistic and the larcenous. He himself gets ured into a spooky den occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Chu, an evil couple who later turn out later to owe big to a loan shark for gambling debuts. Chu Chung-lak (professional creep Anthony Wong) is persistent and scary like a zombie. Mrs Chu, aka Shum Chi-ling (Karena Lam, cast against type) has a cloudy eye and a limp. Shhh....don't tell anyone: she's the evil one, he's the doofus. They lure Mr. Yip into their creepy den to be witness of the suicide of Chu's stepson, Chu Kafu. Only Chu's eagerness to collect the insurance suggests it's not what it might appear. Later Yip is saying, "He set me up, used me as his alibi."

The insurance company delays, Mr. Chu is impatient, and Yip starts investigating. The police don't get involved, probably too busy arresting pro-democracy protesters, suggests the Today[ sarcastic Singapore-based reviewer, Douglas Tseng. He calls this movie a "half baked insurance scam thriller." Damn, he has all the good ideas.

As the delaying and investigating go on, we meet Yip's girlfriend, Wai-yee (Kathy Yuen) a psychology major, and her teacher, Kam Chio. He has some terrible ideas about the desirability of extreme punishment for criminals (the stuff about the cruelty of narcissistic types sounded rather familiar), and while he comes to an awful fate it seems not undeserved. On Letterboxd - where people get to the point fast - astute critic Big Chungus deplores "a regressive mindset towards mental health - where people who are sick are presented as insane, and the good guys try to diagnose them off textbook terms based on broad assumptions instead of understanding." True, and simply incinerating the person who displays this mindset isn't enough.

Going back to labels, South China Morning Post's Edmund Lee (or his editor) calls this in their review's headline "a psychological thriller with a slasher ending." But the trouble is it patently fails on both counts. What it offers is the opportunity to admire Carlos Chan in a wife beater staying up all night with his girlfriend while you're listening to the rich sounds of that Hungarian symphony orchestra. If you want a recent Asian psychological thriller, Lee Chang-dung's Burning is as good as it gets. If you want quality gore with psychological sickness as well, try Fincher's Se7en or Demme's Silence of the Lambs.

Speaking of titles, the English one, as can happen, makes little sense. The meaning of the Chinese title is "Cause of death is not suspicious," which is what the first half of the film is about.

Declared Legally Dead 死因無可疑, 109 mins., opened in Hong Kong in Dec. 2019 and in Singapore and Malaysia Aug. 20, 2020. Screened for this review as part of the NYAFF virtual 2020 edition, where it shows only in the NY State region Sept. 5.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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