Add this to the list of movies that make you want to jump out the window; it’s that depressing. Not exactly a horror film, it starts as a thriller and bleeds into a drama. Regardless, it still challenges, exhausts, and profoundly disturbs. The young and picturesque Cheng family has just moved into their new flat, but things soon sour. Their son (Tam Chan Ho) sees something that sets him wailing and his mother, May (Shu Qi) spies a dark figure through the air vents. They manage, however, to pass a peaceful night. When they are invited to a neighbor’s birthday party the next day, the shy and solitary May reluctantly accepts. But in the chaos of a flash storm, her son disappears, and thus begins a physical and mental chase that leaves everyone wishing they’d just had a better real estate agent.
Unsure at first what to make of the disappearance, the police, led by Lam Suet, think that May might be slightly left of sane, and their suspicions only increase when she starts crawling through the air ducts in search of her son. May insists that someone is scrabbling the dark of the complex with her kid in tow but there’s little proof. She finally manages to get a finger, literally, on some evidence, but this doesn’t ease the mounting skepticism of her mental state. The police do offer up a suspect though, Yan Hong (Karena Lam), and we learn that she and her family were once squatters where the apartment now stands. After her husband died in an accident, she and her son disappeared from the records.
The movie shifts here from a couple of crazy women giving chase to a kind of deconstruction of madness, at least an earnest attempt at one. Yan Hong is, of course, the woman lurching around with May’s son whom she takes as her own, and while she previously had just been someone in serious need of a bath and new clothes, her story pushes forward a larger critique of society. Or again, it tries to. Both women might do well to learn how to win friends and influence people, but their faults hardly merit the cynicism and inattention that envelopes them. After losing family members or facing eviction, they are left even more isolated, their misery compounded by a wholesale breakdown of society, at least for them. The ineffectiveness of all social safeguards – government, neighbors, family – only hastens their flight to the margins and, in the case of Yan Hong, brands her a monster which is the Chinese title for this film.
The moralizing is not too heavy handed and makes this a somewhat effective piece. At the very least, an actual plot and functional characters are in place – though on the latter point I think May’s characterization would have been strengthened by greater interaction with her husband (Alex Fong in little more than a cameo). Maybe because of his small role, however, we have two challenging female characters reinforcing each other, always a cause for celebration in Hong Kong cinema. Even in her distress, May evinces some sympathy for Yan Hong, a feeling reciprocated later on, however briefly. Where the film suffers though is in the emotional avalanche that it unleashes as May’s desperation, fueled by the general incompetence and indifference of those around her, comes to a head. It rightly asks much from its audience but is unable to provide a disciplined response. If the movie imagines itself a vehicle for examining social responsibilities, injustice, and even mental health, it cannot succeed by simply releasing a torrent of misery. Both characters are pushed to such extremes that by the end, there is little left for us to grasp and reshape; the final effect is that the audience becomes just as consumed despair as Yan Hong and May.