Film Review: Hell Bank Presents Running Ghost

Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰, Mark Lee, 2020) – Windows  on Worlds

To grow up watching Singaporean films entails growing up watching Mark Lee, and most will recognise Lee for his slapstick humour and jokes that wear its punchline on his sleeve. His name has been etched into the local entertainment stratosphere since his days as a Jack Neo regular. After basking in his omnipresence for the last 2 decades, he’s been transitioning into the directorial field. His latest effort? Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost.

This marks Lee’s sophomore solo directorial effort since Make it Big Big (2019). Unlike his previous projects, Running Ghost is a Hong Kong production. Perhaps even more notable is how Lee didn’t take an acting role in this. For once, he projects his exuberance from behind the camera, and it more than shines in his direction.

The film kicks off with a promising start. Hiu Kwai (Wong You-nam) wakes up in the underworld post mortem, unaware of how he died. He’s left stranded, waiting in an unbelievably long queue to be reincarnated. He’s left yearning to be reunited with the girl he desires, Bao Yee (Venus Wong), though it’s unclear if the feeling is mutual.

He learns that Hell Bank is organising a variety show called “Running Ghost” (a play on “Running Man”). It’s a “scaring competition” where the victor can regain his previous life in the living world. Armed with the powers of a vengeful spirit, Hiu Kwai re-enters the living world desperately seeking victims, though his initial efforts prove fruitless. Along the way, he meets Ling Kay (Cecilia So), a teenage psychic who agrees to help Hiu Kwai win.

Wong and So’s chemistry is the centrepiece. They’re boosted by a colourful cast of hell-centric supporting characters. On the whole, the film benefits from its foreign setting and Hong Kong cast. There’s a noticeable change of pace from the usual Singapore comedy shtick that we’ve grown accustomed to. Watching a different set of faces was surprisingly refreshing too. 

Evidently, it’s a ghost horror/comedy a la The Haunted Cop Shop (1987) and Happy Ghost (1984). Lee updates the format for the modern day, complete with corny visual effects and shoddy green screens. The flashy motion graphics pair nicely with the neon soaked streets of Hong Kong. Although the incessant use of visual effects can make the film come off as a tech demo.

If Lee excels at anything, it’s world building. The world of Running Ghost humorously mirrors our own, complete with wifi, an e-wallet aptly named “Heli-pay”, and of course, the film’s eponymous variety show. The promise of hellfire and brimstone that comes with the 18th level of Hell is now reduced to self service torture kiosks. Even Joss paper is no longer good here. Suddenly, the underworld doesn’t seem like that bad of a place to be. 

Such a fleshed out supernatural setting sets it apart from local comedic contemporaries. It has an identity that you won’t find in most Singaporean comedies.

Unfortunately, even for a foreign production, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. The comedy is still less hit than miss. It’s often interspersed with misplaced romance and melodrama. Dramatic moments are forcibly amplified by slow motion panning shots, flashbacks, cross fades, and a corny Cantopop soundtrack. The way I see it, these moments belong in a mandarin dubbed serial, not so much a feature film.

What’s worse is how ambiguous this film’s target audience is. The film appears split between younger and older audiences. While I understood the religious and cultural subtext, I wasn’t able to grasp every joke, reference or nuance. That’s already coming from someone who had monthly trips to Haw Par Villa as a kid. Yet, the world building and character archetypes seem catered for youth. The very concept of a supernatural ghost comedy is already anachronistic, so I find it hard to imagine this film finding a younger audience.

This isn’t a film to bring your kids to either. A scene featuring a spirit approaching the camera with his testicles is more than enough to dissuade any parent from making Running Ghost a worthy family trip to the movies.

To be fair, I remember the days when my Dad would drag me through the Ten Courts of Hell at Haw Par Villa. He would point at a figurine sawed in half, intestines spilled, and explain what I was in for if I misbehaved or disrespected my elders. While the concept of death and an afterlife were a tad heavy for a 6 year old, they were valuable lessons nonetheless.

The mediums through which such lessons are taught have evolved drastically over the years. Nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find anybody at Haw Par Villa, besides the odd tourist now and then. I suppose Lee’s attempt to update the format for the modern day opens doors for a new generation to learn about Confucian values. Of course, there’s no Singaporean comedian more suitable than Mark Lee to throw a few laughs in the mix while he’s at it. 


Hell Bank Presents Running Ghost is showing in Cathay Cineplexes now.

Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form