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.
I have spent well over thirty minutes just trying to come up with an opening sentence to lead into my review of Soi Cheung’s Mad Fate, something a little bit more articulate than ‘that was… deeply, deeply insane’, but I keep coming up short.
Probably because the movie is deeply, deeply insane.
Now, it’s a Milky Way Production, so we already know that at bare minimum it’s going to be a high-end bout of insanity, but regardless, there’s no way around the fact that this movie is unhinged in ways that mostly work for it, and a few that work against it.
And its that way from the very start: the opening set piece involves an attempt by The Master (Lam Ka Tung) to save the life of May (Wong Ching Yan Birdy), whose star chart portends doom in the next couple of hours unless The Master can perform a special ritual to change her fate. That the ritual involves a (fake) burial is… well, just par for the course, apparently. But a sudden torrential downpour almost turns the fake burial into a real one and May rightly flips out and leaves before the ritual is complete.
Determined to save her life, The Master follows her back to her apartment where the first of many, many unexpected events occurs: upon returning to her apartment, May is set upon by a serial killer who, despite being interrupted by Siu Tung (Lokman Wong), a delivery boy with the wrong address, manages to slice her to absolute ribbons.
The Master arrives too late to save May, and in the second of the unexpected events, the cops arrive and give chase to the actual killer (a.k.a. The Murderer, as played by the impeccably named Chan Charm Man Peter), cutting off at the knees my assumption that The Master or the delivery boy would be mistaken for the killer.
The third, and perhaps least expected of all the moments in this opening act, was the moment where the delivery boy goes into a trance and starts splashing around in a pool of May’s blood like Gene Kelly in a rainstorm.
Taken in for questioning by one of the cops (Berg Ng, credited only as The Veteran), The Master senses a potential for evil in Siu Tung and vows to combat fate itself by
At this point, it is probably worth noting that The Master considers Fate to be a manifestation of God on Earth.
So, yeah: this is a buddy film about a potential murderer and a mystic who team up explicitly to spite God.
Like I said: deeply, deeply insane.
The script by Melvin Li and Yau Noi Hoi (with a credit for Chan Siu Hei as ‘assistant screenwriter’) benefits from a heedless pace and a bold, almost reckless approach to its big ideas. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly quite rare that a film is so top heavy with conceptual brush strokes that an actual serial killer becomes little more than a Macguffin. But it makes for interesting viewing.
Adding to the bewildering nature of the film, is the tone. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Asia has a different philosophy and intellectual approach to matters of the supernatural and the afterlife. And as always, I have to allow for the possibility of the western disconnect; there are concepts here that might come naturally to its local target audiences, the nuances of which would be entirely lost on less informed outsiders. But while the movie traffics unrepentantly in absurdity, the thing that might be most disorienting to western audiences is just how seriously the film seems to take all of this. The opening scene read as almost slapstick in its convolutions, so when the tone turned grim, it was a bit disorienting to adjust. While I would never call the film in any way dour or humorless (there are any number of unexpected, fully intentional laughs), the concepts it delves into the deepest are the ones that we’re less inclined to take quite so seriously here. But then, with a protagonist like The Master, it’s unclear just how seriously we’re meant to take all the talk of stars and signs in the first place. Which is as good an excuse as any to transition to talking about an aspect of the film that might be polarizing: the performances.
As a buddy film, much of the overall success for audiences will rest on the chemistry of the two leads, the ways in which they bounce off of one another. And these are two characters who, to put it mildly, don’t fall into the usual buddy dynamics.
Siu Tung would be a tricky character to pull off even in a more conventional film: a character who is capable of terrible things and only barely motivated to not do those terrible things, but is also (allegedly) the victim of cosmic forces beyond comprehension. Yeung does frankly impressive work marking out a character who the audience roots for, without making him in any way likable, and only sympathetic in a very abstract (some might say, cosmic) sense.
And his reactions to The Master are extremely well calibrated; not as easy an ask as it might sound, because Lam Ka-Tung is doing a lot.
It’s strange to think that his opening scene with May is him at his most subdued, because for any other actor, I might put that at an 8. But after that understandably intense set piece, when Ka-Tung starts interacting with other characters, he’s so twitchy and high-strung that it became a bit off-putting; this is the de facto protagonist of your film. Are you sure this is what you wanted?
Turns out there’s a method to the madness, and when we find out what it is about 45 minutes into the proceedings, it both explains everything and gives Ka-Tung license to go ever further over the top, until eventually the Earth itself is merely a cosmic speck, spinning in the void.
It’s… an acquired taste of a performance. But perfectly in line with the films aggressively offbeat agenda.
There are lots of things I could go on to mention, like the inexplicable use of maritime and classical music pieces as comical counterpoints, or the satisfying way most of the characters are credited by their professions or affiliations (or in the case of The Murderer, their hobbies): besides The Master and The Veteran, we have Prostitute May, Prostitute Jo, and The Master’s Ex-Girlfriend (an extremely brief cameo by Zhao Yiyi who, weirdly enough, always made a brief cameo as an ex in Everyphone Everywhere. Curious bit of typecasting, that). Or the deceptively innocuous way The Murderer re-enters the picture after having gone missing for like an hour of screentime. Or the incident that takes place in the morgue near the end of the movie. Or the visual metaphor of an ant in a puddle, which lands way better than it has any right to. Or the incredibly impressive cat puppets which might require a trigger earning for animal lovers. Or this film’s truly deranged take on the concept of a happy ending.
Or this, or that, or the other.
The point being this: even if you don’t like Mad Fate (and as it happens, I rather did), it still leaves even the most jaded viewer with gobs and gobs of stuff to talk about afterwards.
In that sense, it seems impossible not to respect the sheer audacity of Soi Cheang. This isn’t just another genre exercise that plays the hits. It’s ambitious, unpredictable and entirely dancing to its own tune. You will not guess how this movie ends from where it starts, and that’s a rare enough phenomenon that it deserves all the attention it can get, and then some.