Horror isn't really Hong Kong's forte. Sure enough, there were some local hits (the Troublesome Night series) and some random successes (like Rigor Mortis), but they never really made a dent internationally, nor did they ever inspire a sustainable niche. Enter Angel Whispers [Hua Jie Liu Xiang], a female-led horror flick that seems to get most things right. Sadly it didn't get picked up by international critics or fans, but not because the core quality isn't there. On the contrary, it's a stylish and grueling film that deserves its own cult following.
Angel Whispers doesn't just stand out because of its genre choices though, the lack of leading female directors is another trademark characteristic of Hong Kong cinema (there's Ann Hui of course, Heiward Mak if you want to dig a little deeper, but they are outliers). Now try to make a cross-section of both and you'll be hard-pressed to come up with any films at all. For that reason alone Angel Whispers is quite special, the fact that Carry Ng and Shirley Yung actually managed to make a worthy and respectable film on their first try is near mythical. Even so, that still wasn't enough to create the necessary buzz to give this film an extended life.
The basic premise of Angel Whispers is a very simple one. It's a standard slasher flick, with some medium gore thrown in to spice things up. Real goreheads or people expecting something surprising should take heed, this is a core genre flick, not an auteur film challenging the boundaries of the genre. If you're not big on horror or you expect to be swept off your feet, better find another film, because this one won't deliver. If, on the other hand, you're looking for some solid genre fare, this is one of the hidden gems in the genre.
The film is set in a small, rundown brothel in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong's red light district. Most of the staff there are outcasts, trying to make an extra buck. Times are harsh and when a serial killer starts targeting prostitutes in the neighborhood, some of the women feel it's time to move on to the next gig. Li, the madam of the brothel, tries to take care of her staff, but little does she know that the killer is actually among them. When one of her most loyal prostitutes disappears and leaves her kid behind, the remaining staff decides it's time to band together and find out who is trying to kill them.
The cinematography is 80% of the appeal here. Maybe not too surprising if you sift through Po Wing Ho's CV (which includes camera credits for a couple of very high profile films and cinematography credits for Guilty, one of the nicer-looking Hong Kong films of the past decade), but still a welcome confirmation of his talents. The camera work and use of lighting in particular is spectacular, with some very stylish black and white sequences near the end of the film to even things out. If only all films looked as beautiful as this one.
Maybe it was because my expectations were rather low to begin with, but Angel Whisper's score wasn't all that bad either. The lack of defining scores in Chinese cinema is one of my long-standing pet peeves, so it's nice to see at least some deviation from the norm, no matter how minor it may be. In essence, it's a pretty standard but effective horror score, with a strong focus on building up tension and creating creepy, menacing atmospheres, but slight electronic touches give it a nice edge. Not quite exemplary, but definitely a step in the right direction.
The cast is almost entirely female, the only male actor with any substantial presence is Tin Chiu Hung. This never feels very forced or statement-like though, the setting and story simply demand for a broad, all-female cast. Besides directing, Carry Ng takes on a shared lead with Kabby Hui, both actresses deliver very solid performances. The rest of the cast is good too, with no weak elements to drag the overall quality down. You won't find any earth-shattering performances here of course, but for a horror film it's well above par.
Angel Whispers is a core genre film, so it's best to approach it as such. After a somewhat atypical introduction, the plot progresses in a very predictable fashion and sticks to what is known to work. There is some decent gore, a few expected twists and the finale brings a batch of explanatory drama. This is after all an Asian horror film. The biggest difference with other Hong Kong horror flicks is that it actually succeeds as a horror film and sticks to its main genre quite rigidly, without the need to mix in a bunch of other genres.
There is plenty to like here. It may not be a genre-defining cinema, but even disregarding its origin and its gender breakdown, Angel Whispers is a fun, nasty and gruesome genre film, sporting a fine soundtrack, solid acting and stunning cinematography. A worthy genre film that should have no trouble appealing to genre fans and by all means should've led the way for more films to follow in its footsteps. Clearly that didn't happen, but at least Ng and Yung proved once and for all that there's room for female-led Hong Hong horror cinema. That alone is worth something.