Movie Review: The Sleep Curse (失眠)

If it’s Thursday, it must be time for another Herman Yau (NESSUN DORMA; SHOCK WAVE) film to hit the cinemas. The ultra-busy director, who routinely makes three films a year, and the equally prolific writer Erica Li have teamed up yet again for THE SLEEP CURSE, a gory tale of past mistakes coming back to haunt future generations.

It’s 1990 and Lam Sik-ka (Anthony Wong Chau-sang/黃秋生, EBOLA SYNDROME) is a Hong Kong neurologist specialising in sleep disorders, specifically insomnia. He believes that it’s possible that humans can wean themselves off sleep, and he and his assistants are busily testing that theory on a bunch of white mice. The university, though, doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the subject and they cut his funding but, as luck would have it, someone shows up at his door in the nick of time with a healthy cheque in hand. That person is none other than the sultry Monique (Malaysian actress Jojo Goh/吳俐璇) who, it turns out, is not only Lam’s old flame but a victim of insomnia herself. As she tells Lam, her eldest brother had recently become a sleep-deprived zombie and ended up committing suicide. Monique is worried that whatever he had is genetic and she’ll turn into an insomniac before too long. With that, Lam cashes her cheque and agrees to use Monique as a test subject.

At this point the film flashes back to World War II when the Japanese army occupied Hong Kong. Lam’s father (also Wong), who learned Japanese as a child, is immediately pressed into service by the local Japanese commandant (played by stunt actor Ikki Funaki). His job is to serve under Chow Fook (Gordon Lam Ka-tung/林家棟, NESSUN DORMA), a local collaborationist who takes young girls away from their families and puts them to work in a comfort house for Japanese soldiers. While Lam Sing tries to surreptitiously help his neighbours as best he can, both he and Chow fall under a sleep curse by a young woman (Michelle Wai/衛詩雅) with supernatural powers who seeks vengeance after her twin sister dies at the hands of the Japanese.

Back to 1990, and it doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to figure out where this film is going but it’s another 45 minutes before all hell breaks loose. When it does, Yau and Li hold nothing back and it all gets very bloody.

At the film’s press screening a few weeks back, audience members were given wax paper bags branded with the film’s key art. When my friend saw them, he thought we’d be getting free popcorn. “No,” I told him, “these are barf bags.” Happily, we didn’t need to use them for that purpose, though the producers may have thought they would come in handy during the film’s final act. Though the film starts well (questionable character motivations notwithstanding) and builds into a respectable ghost story, it all falls apart once we’re back in the contemporary (i.e., 1990) time. It would seem that Yau and Li couldn’t come up with a reasonable ending so they threw in every bit of exploitative violence they could come up with. In the end, it just becomes silly and makes absolutely no sense.

THE SLEEP CURSE is classified as a Category III film (equivalent to an “R” rating in North America). Not only does that limit its commercial prospects in Hong Kong, it’s basically the kiss of death across the border where such films are routinely banned. So who is this film for? I learned a long time ago that there is a huge market in southeast Asia for violent, trashy films. That’s where this film will make its money.

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