It's the month of August already, and with National Day fanfare it's time for a local film to hit our shores. This time round, the regional co-production of Greedy Ghost got the much coveted spot that traditionally spells box office gold (in local terms at least), in the horror comedy genre that is gaining traction amongst filmmakers here, with another 2 more films - My Ghost Partner and Hsien of the Dead, primed for theatrical release soon. Those who have been following my local film reviews will know that some of the worst of late happened to have Boris Boo at the helm, but I'm quite pleased to note that Greedy Ghost proves to be his best work to date as a director.
I suppose recognition has to be given when it is due, but that's not to mean that Greedy Ghost is flawless and had a lot going for it. The story, written by Boo and Mark Lee, centers yet around Singapore's obssession with luck, gambling and lottery. We still can't get over the phenomenal box office success of Money No Enough, and do remember though in the aftermath of that film, a slew of copycats came out that revolved around the same things, such as Lucky Number, and The Best Bet which was directed by Jack Neo. If you'd take a step back, Greedy Ghost deals with karma and retribution in our relentless pursuit for riches and material wealth, most times at the expense of others. It's a cautionary tale about this obsessiveness in gambling, and how it touches almost every facet of the lives of the compulsive gambler, where everything is and can be made a bet, coupled with the means and compromises one is willing to make in order to win. And stuck in urban legend is of course, the seeking of spirits to provide winning lottery numbers.
So here comes the spiritual, or horror aspects of Greedy Ghost, which surprisingly, for a film touted to be a horror comedy, has neither. There are surely no scary moments in the film, bar the horrific acting of some of the actors, the chief of which would be Brendan Yuen's Zou Run Fa / Ah Fa character, the resident good for nothing loud mouth. And for comedy, it's almost expected that the presence of Henry Thia as Ah Hui, the timid, almost monk-like character with few strands of hair left, would bring on the laughs, but even that failed to garner a few chuckles, with his rather restrained outing compared to his works in any typical J-Team production under Jack Neo. So it's not a surprise that the film failed in its marketing attempt to brand it as a horror comedy, but exceled for its dramatic moments as mentioned earlier on the examination into the psyche of the Singaporean gambler, in a movie that had two main but separate narrative threads running.
The biggest name in the movie, Taiwanese TV personality Kang Kang, in what would be his first leading role in a feature film, stars as Ah Lim, who has an entire main story working for him. Friends with the other two men, he finds a wordless scripture, and courtesy of co-writer and producer Mark Lee who voices the spirit, this scripture happens to provide Ah Lim with a series of winning Toto numbers. It took a while for repetition to set in, with the spirit convincing Ah Lim to buy those numbers and strike it rich, and under persistant goading, Ah Lim succumbs to temptation (or threats), and becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams. That of course brings about a change in character, and a caveat that since these earnings were won through the help of a spirit, there's the tacit requirement that the larger the winning, the shorter the lifespan, unless these gains get lost permanently. The battle for material wealth, and longevity or lack thereof, is set.
The other story deals with Ah Hui and Ah Fa's job as grave diggers, with the latter being none too bright than to take jewelery from a corpse, deliberately breaking her bones in the process, despite Ah Hui's blase attempts to convince otherwise. Needless to say, they start to get followed and haunted by "Madam Butterfly", and the film follows their desperate attempts to shake this spirit off their backs, employing a series of mediums and ghost-catchers (for cameo appearances by the likes of Irene Ang, and Chua En Lai) to help in an exorcism, culminating in a very bland final act in a forest, with Jessica Liu (also in her first feature film), as Ah Fa's dim witted girlfriend (whom any feminist will want to hang), getting more involved after a rather uninteresting and sporadic first hour.
Technically, this film does boast a few nicely CG to move the story along, but the biggest culprit here is lighting. The film seemed to have been shot under extremely dim conditions, as if lighting is beyond budgetary reach, but felt necessitated and therefore by its intended genre. As mentioned, Boris Boo had finally stepped out of the long shadow that is the J-Team, and showed how he can make a better film without that reputational albatross around his neck. Greedy Ghost, as an original co-creation with Mark Lee, shows that he's probably more comfortable working with material of his own, rather than being a director for hire, going by disastrous track records such as Aku Tak Bodoh (that didn't deviate from the film it was based on), and Phua Chu Kang The Movie, which is based off the once popular local sitcom. Gamely dressed in drag for a cameo, I suppose having more creative space meant a much enjoyable time bringing his creation to the big screen, which shows in the final product.