The first installment of a Hong Kong horror anthology based on writings by popular Chinese author Lilian Lee (“Farewell My Concubine”), “Tales From the Dark Part 1” features three ghost stories by three different directors. Simon Yam’s entry presents a cautionary tale about messing with the deceased; Lee Chi-Ngai delivers an object lesson in the psychology of ghost appeasement; an Fruit Chan, in the standout third tale, serves up a bang-up spectral revenge drama. Having opened the New York Asian Film Festival in advance of its July 11 release in China (“Part 2” will bow Aug. 8), this somewhat uneven but engrossing mini-triptych should please fans of Asian horror without necessarily scaring their pants off.
The first story, “Stolen Body,” veers more toward socioeconomic than supernatural horror, set in a Hong Kong with no room for the poor — living or dead. Vet actor Yam, making his directorial debut here, also stars as an angry, down-on-his-luck worker living in a narrow coffin of an apartment and raging at two rag dolls he shares his space with. Unbeknownst to him, one of these dolls wanders the streets as a sad little girl ghost, driven from doorways by more affluent spirits and haunting the edges of his experience. Desperate for rent money, Yam’s worker steals rich people’s funeral urns and holds them for ransom, little imagining the ingenuity of the parallel universe that lies beyond the grave.
Lee Chi-Ngai’s “A Word in the Palm,” the second story, stars Hong Kong mainstay Tony Leung Ka-fai as a fortuneteller who sees ghosts. Estranged from his wife and son due to his sixth sense, he decides to close his shop permanently in hopes of marital reconciliation. But the nutty shopowner next door, a ditzy dealer in occult crystals (Kelly Chen), calls on his otherworldly gifts and down-to-earth sensibility to resolve a potentially deadly love triangle between the vengeful drowned schoolgirl (Cherry Ngan), her swim-coach lover and the coach’s pregnant wife. Result is an odd mixture of horror and comedy, the latter stemming primarily from Chen’s over-the-top performance.
The last tale, “Jing Zhe,” helmed by the ever-inventive Chan (whose 2004 shocker “Dumplings” was also adapted from Lilian Lee’s work), chillingly evokes a spiritual maelstrom unleashed by human depravity. Chan starts by introducing an arrogant rich woman (Yuen Qiu) who goes slumming to hire a curbside “villain hitter,” an old woman (Siu Yam Yam) who curses her clients’ selected victims by repeatedly smacking their likenesses with a slipper. In this case, the dowager wants to destroy her rather sweet-looking daughter-in-law, whose photo she condemns to the slipper.
But this whole scenario, into which the viewer invests considerable emotion, proves merely a distraction as a young female apparition (Dada Chan) with one shoe suddenly arrives, seeking spiritual reparations. Frenzied shoe hitting ensues, first at the hands of the old woman and then at the hands of the figment. Brilliantly intercut as the pounding escalates, flashbacks to the girl’s death and vengeful contrivances spectacularly collide in one final twist.