Fantasia 2020: LEGALLY DECLARED DEAD Returns Anthony Wong to His Horror Roots

Any project Anthony Wong deems worthy of his time, is usually worth mine. Wong started out his career doing category 3 horror/exploitation films, eventually working his way up through the Hong Kong studio system into more mainstream fare like the Infernal Affairs trilogy. All of his projects have a certain consistency about them, and appear to be selected for their engaging narrative and usually a meaty role of the actor who isn’t afraid to explore the darker side of the human condition. Legally Declared Dead, which is screening as part of Fantasia is the Hong Kong adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s best selling Japanese novel from 1997, The Black House, which already received the South Korean treatment in 2007.

“The Road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions” — this proverb is both the film’s self-fullfilling prophecy and mantra. Legally Declared Dead follows the young, idealistic insurance agent Yip (Carlos Chan) who much to the annoyance of his boss always seems to get his clients paid out for their claims. When Yip is asked to meet Mr. Chu (Anthony Wong) a mentally handicapped client at his home, he inadvertently witnesses the tragic suicide of Chu’s son, who also happened to have a substantial policy on his life. This event, which brings back the memories of Yip’s own younger brother’s suicide, sends him on a literal decent into Hell to prove that the child was killed by his father to pay off his gambling debts.

Given the film’s country of origin, the film has a fascinating relationship with money and mortality, giving it a very eastern flavor. This is compounded by how these themes influence the insurance industry corruption angle portrayed here. The film has loan sharks rather than simply beating their debtors for their due, mangling them and collecting their workman’s comp. This logic combined with the lack of Judeo/Christian dogma brings in the practicality of suicide as a less taboo solution to these monetary problems for families in debt. How all of this is incorporated into the narrative is just as interesting as the mystery at the heart of the film, since almost everyone except Yip seems to be in on the take.

While Carlos Chan is front and center, and does a great job taking us through his descent into madness, it’s Kar Yan Lam as Chu’s one-eyed wife that is the clear standout here. While Wong is regulated to more of a supporting role here, he still has some genuinely creepy moments in what feels like a throwback to the actor’s seedier work. I thought the pacing here was equally well executed, as well as the film’s portrayal of its flashbacks both intertwining and intersecting them with the present narrative. Kim-Wai Yuen completely floored me as he meticulously weaved this tangled web together into the film’s final conclusion sticking the landing in a way I wasn’t expecting. A story like this one isn’t easy, but Yuen knew just when and where to drop the crumbs to keep the audience waiting for the next fragment of story.

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