Right after the turn of the century, director Pou-Soi Cheang was quickly working himself up to become one of Hong Kong's leading directors. One of his first truly great films was Hyn Huet Ching Nin [New Blood], an accomplished horror film that managed to stand out from the crowd. Asian horror films were all the rage back then though, so I wondered if it still held that same appeal. What better reason to wipe the dust from my DVD and give it another run.
Much like Taiwan, Hong Kong never really managed to become part of the Asian horror wave, although for slightly different reasons. It's not that Hong Kong didn't make any horror films, it's just that their approach to horror is somewhat unconventional and doesn't hold much appeal for Western fans. People like Herman Yau, Marco Mak, Wai-Keung Lau and Cheang himself all had a go at the genre, but lack of focus, gross overacting, too many different genre influences and not so scary ghost material stood in the way of broader success.
New Blood is different though. It's a pretty straight-forward genre effort. There's no comic relief to ruin the atmosphere, no distractions to take away from the scary parts, no twist to drama halfway through. It's just plain scary fun. It's a film that lies closer to the work of the Pang brothers, though it bears more of Hong Kong's traditional styling. That makes it a rare example of a full-blooded Hong Kong horror film, something to be treasured for sure.
The plot revolves around the suicide of a young couple. Three passersby are just in time to notice something's not right. They rescue the couple and carry them off to a nearby hospital. The girl is beyond saving and dies, but thanks to a timely blood transfusion the boy manages to survive, albeit in a coma. The blood donor is heralded as a true hero, but one person is less than happy with the survival of the boy and vows to take revenge on the well-meaning trio.
The cinematography is what you'd expect from a Hong Kong horror film. Lots of night time shots that look extremely blueish (Nuit Américaine, if you want the fancy term), agile camera work and some interesting camera angles leave a strong visual impression. There's an extra layer of finish though that's quite unique to Cheang's work, but if you don't appreciate the cold, muted, blue hues then it's probably best to avoid this one. Even so, for a horror film it looks pretty accomplished.
The music is truly something else. The film thrives on some very interesting, expressive musical pieces you wouldn't immediately link to the horror genre, but Cheang manages to blend them into a very atmospheric whole. There's one track though that jumps out immediately. It's a somewhat butchered, heavily slowed down version of Clint Mansell's Lux Aeterna (from Requiem for a Dream's soundtrack). The resemblance is uncanny, but the effect of the track is completely different and it works absolute wonders within this film. It's probably one of the best and smartest musical rip-offs I've ever heard.
The cast is without a doubt New Blood's weakest link. Niki Chow's performance is passable and the other actors aren't a complete disaster, but there are some borderline acceptable performances and overall I feel that a slightly better cast could've added to the effectiveness of the film. Still, you won't see any of that typical Hong Kong overacting here, so it could've been a lot worse still.
Even though the source of the horror stems from a dramatic event, the film never really gives up on its horror premise. The ghost never becomes a tragic character that tries to evoke sympathy from the audience, even though her anger is somewhat understandable. It's one of the key differentiators that sets New Blood apart from most other Asian horror films. The hauntings themselves though are rather tepid and the film is never on-the-edge-of-your-seat scary, instead Cheang focuses more on creating a dark, unsettling atmosphere.
Hyn Huet Ching Nin is a good place to start if you're interested in watching a Hong Kong horror flick. Maybe it's not really all that representative, but that's what makes it easier to digest. It draws a lot of atmosphere from its strong visual identity and an unusual yet impressive soundtrack and even though the acting leaves a little to be desired, it never gets in the way of the actual film. If you're into horror films, this is an easy recommend.