The third part of the Hidden Gems column continues with another Hong Kong slasher from the ’80s era (you can check out our review from the second part right here) — a little-seen 1985 feature from actor-writer-director Philip Chan (Yan-Kin) in Night Caller <平安夜>.
For most Hong Kong cinema fans, Philip Chan is largely synonymous with his high-ranking cop roles in movies like Cops and Robbers <點指兵兵> (1979), Pom Pom <神勇雙響炮> (1984) and Hard Boiled <辣手神探> (1992). But he also directed a few movies, with one of them being the obscure 1985 horror thriller titled Night Caller <平安夜>.
Philip Chan, who also wrote the screenplay, sets up a well-crafted giallo-style opening scene straight out of Dario Argento’s visual playbook: An unseen killer in black gloves sneaks into a woman’s apartment one night and started toying with her at first. The tension grows as the killer begins slashing the woman with a knife, where Chan framed the scene mostly from the killer’s perspective.
A child named Edith (Lee Pui-Wai) happens to witness the murder of her mother and she gets so traumatised to the point she’s unable to speak a single word. The movie subsequently introduced a trio of cops including Inspector James Wong (Melvin Wong) and Inspector Steve Chan (Philip Chan) and their new colleague, Siu Lok (Pat Ha) as they are assigned to the case, with one of them ends up taking care of Edith for the time being.
The opening scene is no doubt the best thing that happens in Night Caller <平安夜> including the stylish use of blue lights and shadows while effectively evokes a foreboding sense of dread. What follows next is mostly a mix of police procedural and obligatory comedy moments that the latter tends to bog down the movie. The story itself isn’t really interested in making us guess who’s-the-killer whodunit narrative style since the identity of the killer is revealed midway.
A few shortcomings aside (including a somewhat offensive moment involving a killer’s partner played by Mai Kei, wearing questionable blackface makeup while impersonating Robert De Niro’s famous “You talkin’ to me?” quote from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) Night Caller <平安夜> benefits from the onscreen chemistry of Melvin Wong and Philip Chan, where both of them deliver better-than-average performances. Pat Ha, in the meantime, gives a decent supporting turn as the inexperienced police officer, Siu Lok.
Chan’s decision to showcase the drawn-out police procedural work may have been a turn-off for some viewers looking for frequent thrill-a-minute moments. But somehow, it does work in his favour, particularly in the subsequent scenes, where Steve and Siu Lok is increasingly desperate to search for whatever clues they can find to locate their missing colleague.
As mentioned earlier, the comedy parts may have been one of the movie’s biggest weaknesses but there are a few exceptions, though. This is especially true with some of the quirky moments involving a coroner.
Night Caller <平安夜> did score a win for Best Art Direction at the 5th Hong Kong Film Awards while Pauline Wong, who plays Bobby, received a Best Supporting Actress nomination. The latter lost to Deanie Ip for her role in My Name Ain’t Suzie <花街時代>. Despite the award recognition, the movie did little business with a paltry HK$4.7 million and ranked no. 39 in 1985 Hong Kong box office. Look out for Ng Hoi-Tin, who shows up in a small role as Superintendent Pang. The actor, of course, made his debut as Inspector Li in the acclaimed 1984 gritty thriller Long Arm of the Law <省港旗兵>, where Philip Chan was responsible for writing the HKFA-nominated screenplay.