Sunday, April 10, 2016

Zai sheng ren (1981)

... aka: Life After Life
... aka: Regeneration People

Directed by:
Peter Yung

In the summer of 1955, a comet passes overhead (a bad omen according to local superstition) right as a puppeteer is beaten to death with a wooden hammer by an unknown assailant. Immediately after, the puppeteer's pregnant wife goes into labor and dies after giving birth to a baby with a strange and abnormally strong heartbeat. In the present day, photographer Raymond Lin (George Lam, billed as just “Lam”) is testing out a bunch of models for an important upcoming show and spots the perfect one in Di Di Hsu (Flora Cheung). Di Di is new on the scene and hasn't had time to build up much of a fan following as of yet, but Raymond manages to convince the show's wealthy sponsor, Mr. Si (Patrick Tse), that she's the perfect woman for the job. Because of Di Di's delicate facial proportions and the fact there's just something about her, Raymond comes up a puppet-themed fashion show concept that he hopes will get the garments approved for a worldwide fashion show. Though not fond of the idea at first, Mr. Si changes his tune upon finally meeting Di Di and quickly falls under the intelligent and charming girl's spell. Si then begins buttering up the young beauty; taking her out on his yacht, inviting her over for dinner and promising to make her the most popular fashion model in the entire world.

Raymond gets to work on an ambitious, computerized light show he calls “multivision;” which not only can control all of the lighting but also flicker thirty still images in an intricate slide show against a backdrop. Once that and Di Di's make-up tests are in order, all he needs now are some puppets; preferably some authentic, old, hand-carved ones. He and Di Di (who eventually become lovers even though she may also be sleeping with Mr. Si) then go down to a neighboring village and end up helping the “slow” / mentally-retarded Han (Tin Shang Lung, whose last name is amusingly spelled “Loon” in the credits) back home when he gets sick. Han lives with his elderly granny Mrs. Pa (“Man Har” / Mang-Ha Cheng) in an old temple that she's the caretaker of. She also happens to be in possession of a bunch of cobweb-covered puppets she refuses to keep inside her home because, again according to local superstition, puppets are evil. Because the puppets are in such bad shape, George hires Han to repaint and restore them to their former glory while he and the rest of the crew work on other things. Lots of really strange things happen soon after.

Lights flicker on and off, our photographer hero is knocked unconscious by an electric shock that makes him have a nightmare involving one of the puppets, constellations and the comet, and all of the puppets but one (the same one present in the nightmare) disappear. Several characters are then killed, including in a hit-and-run accident and getting burned to death when an effigy suddenly bursts into flames. Raymond, who was raised in the U.S. and studied both astronomy and mathematics in college before taking this latest gig in Hong Kong, gets to work trying to figure out just what's going on. Newspaper clippings detailing the 1955 murder give him a lot to go on, but the story also involves a strange birthmark, fractured flashbacks, some wacky math formulas, reincarnation, past lives, a blind fortune teller, an exorcist, visions of the past appearing in liquids and some perplexing astrological mumbo jumbo involving not only the comet but also birth signs / dates and a star cloud that resembles a human brain. Taking all of that into consideration, plus the fact that no less than three of the main characters (Raymond, Di Di and Han) were all born on the same exact day, the day of the 1955 murder, and thus may be the baby shown born in the opening scene, Ray has a hard time figuring out what's going on. And I'm sure he won't be the only one!

Though all of the metaphysical and astrological jabber gets to be a bit much and the story definitely has its frustrating and confusing passages, this bizarre entry in the HK New Wave cycle is also stylish, very well made and oddly engrossing. Strip away all of the cosmic talk, and this is basically a rather simple tale of the cyclical nature of fate and how fatalism and obsessing over things out of one's control can result in disastrous consequences. The sometimes surreal visuals are frequently excellent and really what carries the day here. Thanks to art director Arthur Wong, cinematographer Oliver Wong and others working on the production design and lighting, many of the shots in this one are very visually arresting. Lots of neon, shadows and strobe light flickering are all effectively used to enhance the other-worldly feel. The amazingly varied score from Chris Babida, which has everything from elegant classical compositions to synthesizer sci-fi, is also excellent. Deservedly, it won for Best Original Film Score at the Hong Kong Film Awards and the film itself score three other nominations.

The basis for this one was a story written by Lillian Lee (Farewell My Concubine). Never officially released here in America, this Cinema City production is available on DVD with English subtitles from Fortune Star. Several of the previous releases, including the VCD version from Deltamac, have a much brighter picture than the DVD.

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