A Hong Kong without traffic jams and crowds is a phenomenon eerier than any alien invasion or zombie outbreak, and it’s what the passengers of a minibus have to cope with when they find themselves the survivors of a strange pandemic in “The Midnight After,” a deliriously high-concept and gleefully low-budget horror-comedy that mourns the dissolution of the city’s core values since its handover to China in 1997. Maverick helmer Fruit Chan (“Made in Hong Kong,” “Durian Durian”) bends genre like it’s putty in his hands, distilling the macabre from the everyday and making the apocalyptic seem absurdly matter-of-fact. Fest play is assured, and ancillary prospects in overseas Asian-friendly niches look hopeful.
Since the wickedly grotesque “Dumplings” (2004), the once-prolific Chan has dabbled in short and medium-length films that suggested he might have lost his creative edge. But by adapting Pizza’s “Lost on a Minibus From Mongkok to Taipo,” a Web novel that went viral, Chan has found an ideal vehicle for his deep affinity for his city’s culture. Referencing everything from SARS to “cha chaan teng” (local diners), and even a veiled connection between Fukushima and the Daya Bay nuclear power plant in neighboring Shenzhen, “The Midnight After” reps a hodgepodge of what defines the Hong Kong experience. Blithely unconcerned with subtlety, coherence or the Chinese market, the film sizzles with untranslatable colloquial wisecracks, trenchant social satire, and an ensemble cast of character actors and young up-and-comers at their freaky best. A mercurial ride that is decidedly outside the mainstream, it should nonetheless delight genre aficionados and bonafide fans of Hong Kong cinema.
While playing mahjong, porky minibus driver Suet (Johnnie To regular Lam Suet) gets called in to cover a friend’s night shift from Mongkok to Tai Po, in exchange for deferred payment of a debt. At 2:28 a.m., the red, 16-seat vehicle is filled up and sets out from Kowloon’s busiest urban center for the satellite town in the New Territories. While passing through a tunnel, they sense something is amiss, and sure enough, when they emerge on the other sides, the roads are empty and their destination has become a ghost town.
Four college students become the first of the travelers to succumb to the invisible virus that’s killed everyone else in the city; once the reality of what’s happened dawns on the remaining 13 passengers, some offer interpretations ranging from the improbable to the ridiculous. Their reactions subtly reveal different personal traits, as when the clairvoyant Sister Ying (Kara Hui, insidiously controlling) slips a life-insurance sales pitch into her Photon Belt prophecy.
Cool-headed programmer Shun (Chui Tien-you) manages to decode a mysterious siren that they’ve all heard on their cell phones, cuing a sidesplitting rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” by an onboard dweeb (played by Jan Curious, vocalist for the math-rock band Chochukmo). The performance of the 1969 song not only serves as the film’s comic high point but also underscores its themes of exile and death, capturing the estrangement that Hong Kong residents often feel from their rapidly changing homeland.
As the characters disperse and regroup, Chan exploits the mass-panic scenario for farce as well as terror, with an original mash-up of epidemic/zombie/sci-fi horror elements that makes “Contagion” and the “REC” franchise look square by comparison. Dream sequences and spooky visions further add to the surreal atmosphere, and the revelation of each character’s dark side culminates in a highly political message about the loss of morality and compassion following a critical transition, as symbolized by their passing through the tunnel. Chan leavens the heavier dialogue scenes with a few punchy action sequences en route to a big-bang finish at once funny, sad, allegorical and provocatively open-ended.
It’s hard to invest such a large raft of characters with much psychological depth or backstory, but the actors manage to come across as quirky yet believably ordinary. Simon Yam stands out as a scuzzy hood, while Chan fixture Sam Lee is always on hand to lighten thing up as a stupefied cokehead. A pleasant surprise is actress-model Janice Man, who morphs from blandly pretty at the outset to skin-crawling by film’s end.
Chan, who’s known for his frugal production values, again makes every penny count, packaging cheap sci-fi elements with high camp, and generating shivers with a mix of real interiors and unglamorous street scenery. His regular d.p. Lam Wah-tsuen handled the guerrilla-style handheld camerawork, complemented by oppressive sound design and edgy music.