Hailed upon its release as a new-wave twist on the traditional Cantonese horror picture, The Imp (1981) has both diminished and grown in the interceding decades.
Director Dennis Yu Wan-kwong’s tale of unfolding terrors connected to an upcoming birth proved such a pervasive influence on the late-20th-century Hong Kong ghost genre that its power to appal has necessarily, though not entirely, receded. But the abatement in shock value has had the salutary effect of focusing attention on what was previously a less obvious accomplishment: the movie’s snapshot of Hong Kong life in the early 1980s.
Particularly in its first half, the film’s leisurely pace is spot-on in building up to the revelation of unimaginable truths concerning young security guard Ah Keung (Charlie Chin Hsiang-lin) and his pregnant wife, Lan (Dorothy Yu Yee-ha), as they await the arrival of their first child. The quotidian quality of these passages makes the eventual introduction of a Taoist master (Elliot Yueh Hua) all the more disturbing, the tone escalating from a naturalistically staged cemetery scene to progressively over-the-top mystical sequences.
The latter, impressive in their day, have since been surpassed by Tsui Hark’s ghost stories, among others. But the relatively “everyday” vignettes retain a doom-laden sparkle that is delightful for its very “Hong Kong” character. It would be hard to come up with a more local murder device, for example, than the boiling congee that spells the demise of one doomed guard.
A major factor in The Imp’s freshness is its on-location photography in such evocative settings as a colonial-era phone booth on Hollywood Road and a surprisingly lush Chater Garden. Even more nostalgic is the depiction of an era when low-paid workers could afford spacious, albeit shabby, Mid -Levels tong lau (tenement) flats.
The film’s main venue is a haunted shopping centre. Shot in Admiralty’s then newly completed but not yet occupied United Centre, cinematographers Bob Thompson and David Chung Chi-man create a suitably ethereal atmosphere with bold colours, primarily green, and an abundance of mist.
The unaffected performances are also a key to the movie’s success, providing a welcome change of pace for Chin, best known for his insipid 1970s Taiwanese romances opposite Brigitte Lin. Future best actor winner Kent Cheng Chuk-see adds some humorous notes as Keung’s hapless colleague. More haunting is Yu’s tragic turn as the ill-fated wife, retrospectively poignant in light of her vehicular accident in 1988 and death from cancer at the age of 36.
The Imp will be screened on March 25 at the Hong Kong Film Archive, in Sai Wan Ho, as part of the Revisiting the New Wave programme.