Berlin 2023

Mad Fate review – wildly uneven Hong Kong thriller has plenty of panache

Filmmaker Soi Cheang's latest sags somewhat in the middle but is packed with enough style and showmanship to make it worthwhile

The Hong Kong film industry has seen better days: mainland China’s near-complete control over film production means that there is less and less creative freedom in the territory, and the mix of commercialism and madcap invention that so watered the area’s cinema across the latter half of the 20th century has gradually dried up. There are, however, still a few holdovers. Ming On, whilst far from a full-throttle recall to those glory days, is still packed with the filmmaking panache and sheer style that so drove that time.

As per the English translation of the title, Mad Fate, the plot deals very much in notions of destiny and omens. A fortune teller (Gordon Lam), obsessed with reading people’s astrological charts and divining their features, keeps coming across the hapless boy Siu Tung (Yeung Lok-man), a delivery driver with a penchant for animal cruelty, who finds himself crossing paths with a serial killer (and only then because he went to the wrong address). Having failed to save one customer from the serial killer, the fortune teller sets out on a mission to save Siu from a similar fate. All this, by the way, happens in the first ten minutes of the film.

Visually, Soi Cheang creates a Hong Kong that is claustrophobic and sodden with rain. Hong Kong is by far the city with the most expensive housing by square metre in the world, and its vertiginous, cramped urban topography has been put to great use in the past, like in Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide, but here it feels smaller and more prison-like than ever before, befitting of a story all about how characters are shaped by forces beyond their control.

In this central thread is perhaps a small act of protest – a suggestion that refusing to accept one’s fate lying down against larger forces is essential to personal freedom. Pointedly, when the thunderstorm crashes down in the opening scenes and brings everyone together, the extras are seen opening their umbrellas almost in unison: the umbrella was the central symbol of protest in pro-democratic demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2014.

In spite of all the breathless energy here, the middle section of the film lapses into repetition. After the astounding opening set-piece, we settle into a pattern of the fortune teller constantly heckling and pushing the young man to change his ways through compulsive checking of star charts, feng shui, and all manner of strategies. His constant dialogue – which is diegetic but comes to feel like a perpetual voiceover – overwhelms much of the film. Despite the impressive detail given to his readings (whether based in actual folkloric practice or not), it quickly becomes redundant. It’s energetic the first three times; boring for the next 10; by round 20 you’re aching for a change of pace.

Thankfully, it does arrive. Mad Fate is bookended by two superb action set-pieces, both of them grizzly, gruesome, and bucketloads of fun (although, they may also be accused of a certain degree of misogyny, too). But Soi Cheang’s sure eye in handling these is key to their charm as wild entertainment – this is a madly uneven film, but such panache and showmanship will always earn a tip of the hat from this writer.

Mad Fate was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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