The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
The 22nd annual New York Asian Film Festival took place between July 14 and July 30. For more information on what you missed, click here.
In my review of Kitty The Killer from earlier in the festival, I made note of how action movies get a certain amount of leeway that other genre fare doesn’t get.
I was not expecting such an immediate validation of my whole thesis.
Nate Ki’s directorial debut Back Home is a horror movie that, while ultimately too muddled to be a full success, has its fair share of very effective unnerving moments… as well as some would-be spooky scenes that feel overly familiar, which can be the kiss of death when it comes to the horror genre.
The story is set up with a welcome efficiency in its opening moments: Wing Lai (Sean Wong as a child, Anson Kong as an adult), a Chinese expatriate living in Canada, returns to his home country when he receives word that his mother Tang Wai-Lin (Bai Ling, either unrecognizable or I’ve gone face blind) attempted suicide and languishes in a coma. It’s not a happy homecoming, as he has very painful memories related to his upbringing, as definitively demonstrated in the very first scene, a POV shot that places the viewer in his shoes as his mother repeatedly tries to slap the third eye out of him.
The third eye being the one that allows him to see ghosts. He says he’s gotten over it, but the vision he had of his mother sitting on his couch in a cocktail dress with her tongue removed right before receiving the call about her condition somewhat puts the lie to his claims.
That his comatose mother is also missing her tongue isn’t a particularly great portent, either.
Settling into his mom’s apartment, he meets the neighbors, prominent among them a friendly elderly couple who claim to have known him as a child (Tai Bo and Helen Chan as Uncle and Grandma Chung), and Yu (Wesley Wong) a young boy who, it soon becomes clear, shares with Wing the ability to see ghosts. Though he shows little interest in solving the mystery of what happened to his mom, a rash of attempted suicides in the building and a lurking mystery about the abandoned seventh floor draw him in to the kind of supernatural conspiracy that defies all logic and reason… both in the world of the film and for audiences alike.
The thing that Back Home does as well as, if not better than, any other horror movie I’ve seen in quite some time is make the layer between fantasy and reality gossamer thin. So many horror movies, favoring shock over atmosphere, make the tactical error of having clear delineations; how many times have we seen a scene that ends with the protagonist waking up from a horrible moment? It’s a quick fix of endorphin rush, when creating a consistent sense of disorientation and dread without the comfort of that release would be so much more effective.
Here, strange beings lurk in the background, uncanny and unacknowledged, the dead seem to briefly return to life in a crowded room and people staring right at the body don’t seem to notice. Even the ostensibly normal people have a habit of sticking around just a beat longer than is comfortable, as if their systems are ever so briefly glitching out. It builds an undercurrent where the viewer finds themselves just as unmoored.
So its a pity that the film doesn’t have the will to stay in that space for longer. About halfway through, we start getting more of the conventional scares: ghosts poking their heads in through cracked doors, a spectral presence in an incongruous form (in this case, geisha gear), taking the authorities to the spot where they saw the thing, only to reveal nothing, making the protagonist seem crazy… we’ve seen it all before, and while it looks better than 90% of case (Director of Photography Rick Lau and the Art Direction from Ceci Pak Pur Sze and Cheung Bing create some undeniably gorgeous imagery), there’s no escaping the mold permeating all those moments where the movie is supposed to be at its most horrifying.
For all the attempts to wring scares out of old saws like ghosts singing nursery rhymes and haunted elevators, the most visceral moments come in much smaller moments, like an unnerving lingering shot of the passengers in a toy car (all credit to the deft, restrained sense of when to cut and not cut from editor Barfuss Hui) and the deliciously wince inducing punchline to a runner about Wing clicking his thumbnail when he’s agitated (all credit to Lau Chi Hung’s exquisite sound design)
The cast is very good, which helps. But the further into the movie we get, the more I had to question some of their choices. The flashbacks that provide insight into Wings traumatic past plant an interesting seed in the idea of exploring the strain of having a child so connected to the supernatural, a sort of dark mirror to The Sixth Sense. But as it plays out, Bai Ling only has a couple of moments of maternal affection and the rest of the time she’s just a loon crowing about how he drove his father away (plus one particularly tasteless and unnecessary scene of sexual assault thrown in for little gain). Watching the slow collapse of Tang, and how Wing might have difficulty reconciling his abuse at her hands with a misplaced sense of guilt that his abilities might have driven her to it, just plain would have made for a stronger connection to the themes the film seems to be toying with.
Without question, she’s very, very good at the loon stuff. But… to what end?
And it’s even odder that they don’t really connect Wing’s past to Yu’s present, except in the broadest of strokes. The way the film resolves, it doesn’t even seem necessary for Yu to have been able to see ghosts in the first place, except as an excuse to throw in more cheap scares. And it all culminates in the reveal of a conspiracy that really could have landed if they’d just cut out a few of those aforementioned cheap scares for a bit more thematic development. Wing is made an offer that should have been tempting, but since we got a snootful of his trauma and none of his life outside it, we’re not given any reason to think what’s on offer is a thing he would even want. It simply doesn’t land
But whatever the failings of Back Home, it feels they could very easily be chalked up to the sort of rookie mistakes that befall any overly ambitious first timer; if lacking in focus, Nate Ki absolutely displays an impressive level of skill for a debut feature. Back Home may not have entirely worked for me, but it’s got more than enough goos qualities to make me eager to see where he goes from here.