Credit: NYAFF
by Daniel Gorman Film

Legally Declared Dead | Yuen Kim-wai

September 14, 2020

Anthony Wong is an axiom of Hong Kong cinema, an iconic actor who has featured in every conceivable film genre and played every kind of character in his nearly forty-year career. At first blush, the new film Legally Declared Dead looks like a throwback to the Category III exploitation films of the eighties and nineties, glorious monstrosities that saw Wong appear in some of the most famous examples (The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome, among others). Unfortunately, that’s not what the film is, nor is Wong even the main character (despite receiving top billing). Instead, we follow mild-mannered insurance salesman Yip Wing-shun (Carlos Ka-lok) as he is called to the home of Chu Chung-tak (Wong). Chu’s stepson has hung himself, and Chu is insistent on collecting the insurance payout as quickly as possible. Wong plays Chu as a dumb, lumbering oaf, an impressively intimidating physical performance that stands in stark contrast with his work in last year’s Still Human, where his character was confined to a wheelchair. Eventually, Yip meets Chu’s wife, Shum Tsz-ling (Karena Lam), and becomes convinced that Chu has not only killed his stepson, but is going to target his own wife next. Shum is slowly going blind and walks with a pronounced limp, which Yip fears is the result of domestic violence. The first half of the film allows all of this to unfold at a snail’s pace, as we see Yip’s suspicions grow into outright paranoia. 

Director Yuen Kim-wai, adapting a bestseller titled ‘The Black House’, shoots everything like a horror movie; the opening credits are a frenzied blast of weird imagery reminiscent of the beginning of Fincher’s Seven, while Chu and Shum live in a dilapidated flop house that appears to have no working electricity, or windows, or furniture. Scenes of Chu harassing Yip for his payout money take on the ambiance of a slasher film, and Yuen even inserts a couple of ridiculous dream sequences specifically designed to elicit cheap jump scares. Yuen also makes room for flashbacks to Yip’s tragic childhood and deceased younger brother, presumably his motivation to keep a potential maniac from killing again. It’s all very dumb, made worse by playing things relatively straight, but the film becomes more enjoyable as it drops the facade of being an adult thriller and instead embraces its own ludicrous energies. Without spoiling the whole thing, it’s safe to say that the marriage between Chu and Shum is not what it appears to be, and the second half of the film revs up to kidnapping, animal mutilation, torture, and murder. All that makes Legally Declared Dead sound like more fun than it actually is. Far from embracing its more unseemly elements, Yuen cuts away from most of the violence, relying on quick jump cuts and loud music cues to goose the audience. Still, the final showdown between Yip and the real murderer is a solid set piece, finally delivering on the cheap thrills mostly missing from the rest of the film. For undemanding fans of a certain kind of Grand Guignol pot boiler, this is passable if uninspiring entertainment.

Published as part of NYAFF 2020 — Dispatch 3.