Midway through Fruit Chan’s batshit-insane apocalyptic survivalist comedy The Midnight After, a character remarks, “Hong Kong doesn’t do sci-fi.” Chan’s film feels like a riposte to Hong Kong cinema’s supposed allergy to the genre. It’s also a departure. Not just for a Hong Kong Second Wave filmmaker more associated with telling small, intimate stories about the relationships between people and their community, but for cinema writ large.
First off: The best credit for a film playing at the Berlinale so far goes to The Midnight After’s “Based on the novel by PIZZA.” Adapted from a sci-fi novel original published online (and authored, yes, by “Mr. Pizza”), the film opens with frantic crosscuts showing a group of strangers boarding a late-night bus running between Hong Kong’s Mong Kok and Tai Po districts. Chan’s breathless pace seldom relents as the passengers emerge on the other side of the Lion Rock Tunnel to find the city abandoned. As in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, it feels genuinely weird (even uncanny) to a see a city defined by its populous hustle-bustle emptied out. It’s by far the neatest trick Chan pulls off.
The survivors—including a former soccer star, the bus driver, a prim conspiracy theorist, a wannabe rock star, a junkie, and two troublesome teens—attempt to piece together what exactly is going on. But Chan hyperactively rearranges all the puzzle pieces before they can fall in place. There are scenes of kids turning to stone, and of other kids bubbling up and exploding. There are mysterious Morse-code phone calls and—cliché of all post-apocalyptic clichés—menacing men in gas masks. There’s a detour into a full-blown music-video cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
It’s fun, initially, watching Chan gnaw off way more than he, or likely any filmmaker, can chew. But the film’s wackadoo approach to genre-mashing and schizoid tone is its undoing. The madcap comedy curdles into violence somewhere near the grisly corpse-rape scene (or certainly by the time people line up to stab a teenager in the penis). And the initially sharp, catty interplay between the extended cast escalates into pitchy yelling. The introduction of some quasi-topical Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster feels like a half-considered addendum to a film that, while initially enchanting in its jittery, candy-colored weirdness, betrays its formlessness as plot points mount and scenes drag on into the next. Surely Mr. Pizza deserves better.
Berlinale runs from February 6—16.