VIFF 2014: Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival. This is a revised version of my review from the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival.

The end of the world, maybe. A late-night minibus, packed with commuters traveling from (if my geography is correct) the center of the city to one of its satellite neighborhoods, seems to drive instead into the Twilight Zone: everyone else in Hong Kong seemingly disappears, and then the passengers themselves begin dying in unusual ways. Lam Suet drives the bus, Simon Yam (sporting perhaps his most incredible haircut yet) grabs a leadership role being the oldest and loudest, Kara Hui spouts metaphysical mumbo-jumbo about the Photon Belt and their impeding transportation (over 1000 years) to their new home near Sirius, while the younger generation (soccer fans, punk kids and college students) have no theories as to what’s going on and no direction (the girl Yuki and boy Chi withhold possibly relevant information at every turn, a married couple apparently sees the world through soccer metaphors, a computer programmer has some tools but no idea what to do with them).

As it becomes clear that director Fruit Chan won’t give us, or them, a clear explanation of what has happened, he offers a handful of possibilities, based on the insecurities and anxieties of contemporary Hong Kongers both primal and political: is it a Fukushima-type disaster, from a nuclear plant on the Mainland? A plot by the North Koreans (who claim to be the source of all Chinese culture)? A SARS-style epidemic? Is it somehow related to the fact that Hong Kongers are soon to be allowed to vote for their own Chief Executive? Is it ghosts? Aliens? Are they ghosts? What does David Bowie have to do with it all?

Based on a serialized web novel called Lost on a Red Minibus to Taipo by PIZZA (a pseudonym, one assumes), the film is as hilarious as it is horrifying. It’s full of beautiful grotesqueries, primally disturbing imagery (a man in a gas mask, a woman with unnaturally flowing hair, a red red rain) but the eeriest of all are the empty streets of Hong Kong. One of the most densely populated places on Earth (even at 2:30 in the morning, when the film begins, it should be bustling with human activity) suddenly emptied of people and vehicles and noise. But what it isn’t is a concise and coherent narrative. On-screen titles give us the exact time and location of every event (like in Psycho) but that information only gives us a false sense of security, of order. Knowing the time and place is nice, but that doesn’t free you from the random whims of the universe (like in Psycho). Images and events are left unexplained: mysterious phone calls, vanished memories, flashbacks to pasts both sad and happy. Members decline to share possibly important (and bizarre) facts with the other members of the group. An impromptu justice system is established and an execution agonizingly botched. A prime mover of the first half of the story mostly disappears from the back half, his mysteries left unresolved. All of this dangling and inexplicability and incongruence is not a failure, of course, it is The Point. The film is the horror of death as Unanswered Question, and as the end of the possibility of Answering Questions.

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