Pou-Soi Cheang is back. He put himself on the map again when he released Limbo, Mad Fate was the film that would determine whether this was just a random fluke, or if Cheang had really turned his back on crappy CG-based fantasy blockbusters for the time being. Mad Fate [Ming'on] isn't quite as easy an export product as Limbo was, for that the supernatural elements are a bit too prominent, but if you loved Cheang's early films, I don't think you're going to be disappointed with this one. I for one am glad to see Hong Kong cinema isn't quite dead yet, even when it's just hanging on by a thread.
Mad Fate is more than just the resurgence of Cheang, it's also a reminder that Milkyway Image is still around, delivering first-rate films. it used to be a quality label for Hong Kong genre cinema, but in this past decade or so, their output decreased drastically. It's not too surprising, to be fair. All of Hong Kong cinema has taken a hit, even so, somehow I'd hoped they could've held out a little longer. Cheang collaborated with them before (Accident is a great film if you haven't seen it already), hopefully, Mad Fate will give both of them the boost they deserve (and need).
Mad Fate wasn't just made under the supervision of Milkyway, in many ways, it feels like a genuine To/Wai collaboration. There's a twinge of Mad Detective in there, only it's mixed with slight supernatural elements that give it some late 90s Hong Kong flair (if you're thinking Herman Yau's Troublesome Night series, you're not too far off). If that's a weird combo, think of what that looks like if you add Cheang's visual flair into the mix, and you'll get a pretty decent idea of what to expect. It's an oddity alright, but that's what makes it fun.
A fortune teller does his best to save a young woman, but as much as he tries, he can't avert her terrible fate and she dies anyway. Hoping to redeem himself, he takes on the case of a boy with a horrid past. The boy seems destined to become a murderer, and the police are already tracking him because of minor crimes in the past. Meanwhile, an actual serial killer is roaming the streets of Hong Kong and killing prostitutes whenever it rains. Time is running out, so the fortune teller takes some extreme measures to protect the boy, leaving people to wonder whether he's actually sane.
Limbo was an absolute visual stunner, Mad Fate isn't quite on the same level. That said, cinematographer Siu-Keung Cheng is a skilled veteran and has more than enough experience with capturing Hong Kong's darker side in alluring ways. The neon-colored crime scenes are grimy, the camera work is dynamic and the editing is snappy. There is some horrible CG (the cat, in particular, is very poorly done) that should've been solved in a better/different way, but apart from that Mad Fate has that stark, gritty Hong Kong look that made many of To's better films stand out.
The soundtrack too is somewhat reminiscent of To's late 00s work. It's not quite what you'd expect from a film like this, never quite in line with the dark subject matter, but it's fun and quirky and it helps the film to stand out. It seems to be a conscious reminder that Mad Fate shouldn't be taken too seriously and that it's all just a bit of genre fun, even when the subject matter can be quite gruesome and unpleasant. It's not something everyone will be able to appreciate, but if you like Johnnie To's more playful genre films, you'll find yourself right at home here.
The same goes for the performances. Despite the fact that we're dealing with dangerous serial killers, mentally scarred youngsters, and an unstable fortune teller (Gordon Lam taking the lead again), the performances aren't quite as subtle or brooding as you might expect. Not so much a Milkyway thing as a more general Hong Kong thing I guess, and probably the most divisive choice that Cheang made. It's also why this film feels less like an internationally oriented project and more like something intended for the local market. Nothing fans of Hong Kong cinema should be worried about, just know that the performances are a little extra.
Hong Kong cinema tends to be bound to strict genre definitions, so when you get films like Mad Fate, which prefer to mix and match, it creates tension and uncertainty that is actually quite exciting. The film switches gears a couple of times during the first half hour and it takes a while before all the pieces fall into place. But even the finale has a few unexpected turns that steer the film in different directions. It can come off a little random maybe and the outcome is still pretty fixed, but at least the way there isn't as predictable and it kept me on my toes until the very end.
If you're a fan of Johnnie To/Ka-Fai Wai's collaborations, Milkyway Image productions, and/or Cheang's grittier work, watching this film is an absolute no-brainer. Its slight horror influences may make it harder to find an appreciative international audience, but the slick cinematography, spirited performances, and the mix of darker themes with witty and self-aware styling choices make this one of the better films to come out of Hong Kong in recent years. Hopefully, it won't take as long as Limbo to reach our shores, but I'm sure fans of Asian cinema will power through regardless. I'm glad Cheang's revival didn't stop after Limbo.