Sound & Colour: Connie Mak’s ‘Nights of Entanglement’《夜夜痴缠》in Ronny Yu’s ‘The Occupant’ 《灵气迫人》
Sound & Colour is a column where we talk about memorable pairings of music and film. Think “Ride Of The Valkyries” in ‘Apocalypse Now’, and “Mrs Robinson” in ‘The Graduate’. It’s also an excuse for Matt to write about music.
As far as horror films go, 1984’s The Occupant 《灵气迫人》probably won’t spook anyone but its theme song, “Nights of Entanglement”《夜夜痴缠》by Connie Mak (麦洁文), might.
Directed by Hong Kong director Ronny Yu, the Cantonese horror-comedy follows the misadventures of Angie (Sally Yeh), a college student from Canada, returning to Hong Kong to work on her master’s thesis on local superstitions. Without Airbnb or any foresight to rent a place for her stay, she engages the help of a womanising real estate agent Hansom Wong (Raymond Wong), who rents out a mysteriously spacious apartment to her.
Supernatural occurrences start happening around the apartment. Tables start shifting. Voices can be heard in the night. Angie gets possessed at one point. Despite all that, I guess we Chinese just love money so much that we will refuse to move out of a haunted house if it means saving a few dollars. Nevertheless, it is up to Angie, Hansom, and police officer Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) to take the presumably thriftier route of solving the supernatural mystery, which will bring them face-to-face with the spirit of a tormented songstress.
While the film was a hit in 1984, The Occupant is mostly remembered today in the Cantonese-speaking world for its theme song and the chilling urban legend spun from it. Multiple variations have emerged over the years but the gist remains the same: spooky things happen whenever the song is played and heard at night.
Several late-night radio DJs in Hong Kong have reported paranormal activities in the studio whenever the song is broadcasted. These range from dark figures in the corridors to paper flying around the windless studios, strange voices heard together with the songs to chairs nearby falling sideways. One DJ was mysteriously compelled to scribble “I quit!” on a memo pad after listening to the song. All of these have led to “Nights of Entanglement” being banned from late-night airwaves in Hong Kong.
Having said all that, the research process behind this article was surprisingly wholesome and enriching. While the use of “Nights of Entanglement” in The Occupant is not particularly noteworthy, it seems that the only thing frightening about them is the level of depth they offer in understanding Hong Kong’s culture and entertainment world, and with how they reiterate the power of nostalgia in navigating through these uncertain times.
The Music – Connie Mak’s “Nights of Entanglement” 《夜夜痴缠》
It’s probably at this point that I should mention that “Nights of Entanglement” is not the song title’s official translation. None exist for the Cantopop hit as the genre’s popularity hardly reaches beyond the Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking world.
Still, Cantopop is undoubtedly a massive part of Cantonese entertainment and culture – so much so that a lot of the genre’s evolution very much mirrors the cultural struggles of its epicentre, Hong Kong, over the years.
Connie Mak, also known as Kitman, came up during the golden age of Cantopop in the 1980s. It was a period where Hong Kong reigned as both a cultural and economic powerhouse in Asia. There were musical superstars, such as Leslie Cheung and Sandy Lam, but there was more than enough room for comparatively smaller acts to shine as well. Hundreds of films and television shows produced every year created a need for hundreds of theme songs, which in turn led to the spectacular growth of Hong Kong’s music industry.
Mak’s success was very much a product of the synergy, with several hit records mostly remembered today for being heard in classic series and films. Throughout her discography, she showcased versatility in tackling the various subgenres of 1980s Cantopop: be they dance hits filled to the bone with synthesisers or sappy piano ballads. One of her most well-known hits in the latter category is “Nights of Entanglement”, the theme song for 1984 Hong Kong horror film The Occupant.
It’s a song that has kept a generation awake at night; one whose urban legend I have heard about in the past but not of the actual song itself (definitely not due to fear). Risking my life for my job, the first time I listened to the song was late at night to recreate the rumours but disappointingly enough, the scariest things around were still the global pandemic and a lack of money.
Sans the urban legend, the song is melancholic yet surprisingly warm. Mak’s powerful voice describes in heartbreaking detail a rainy and misty night filled with longing for a loved one. It’s a great tune but as far as pop songs notorious for terrifying urban legends go (such as Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday”), this one is pretty tame.
The closest “Nights of Entanglement” gets to being spooky is with Mak’s ethereal cooing in the song’s intro, but that felt more soothing to me than anything else. I tried listening to the song backwards too but all I could hear were chantings that had nothing to do with the urban legend.
The Occupant and its use of the song
While its theme song’s urban legend has understandably overshadowed the film, the tidbits surrounding The Occupant are just as interesting – albeit not as scary. Unbeknownst to audiences back in 1984, the horror film, starring Chow Yun-Fat, Sally Yeh, and Raymond Wong, would give Hong Kong a glimpse of its superstars of tomorrow.
Finishing at number 12 at the year’s box office, the film’s hit status finally dispelled Chow’s long-held nickname as being ‘box office poison’ (票房毒药). Established by starring actor Raymond Wong, the film’s production company, Cinema City Studios, would go on to be an industry giant. One of its mega-hits, 1986’s A Better Tomorrow, would launch Chow to the stratosphere, eventually propelling him to become the second-highest earning actor in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Sally Yeh would go on to be a household name in Cantopop throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Should The Occupant be experienced for sleepless nights? Probably not. While atmospheric, the film is light on scares, functioning more as a horror-comedy with the banter between Chow and Wong – both competing for the affection of Yeh – being the main focus.
That being said, The Occupant should still be watched for being a hearty gateway to understanding Hong Kongers’ culture and their deep respect for superstition. Its main character, Angie, being an outsider researching on local superstitions gives the film ample opportunities to detail traditions as well as highlight the relationship the locals have with the supernatural
While each character differs in the intensity of their beliefs, they soon come face to face with the tormented spirit of a deceased songstress Li Sha (played by Connie Mak), who is the original owner of Angie’s rented apartment. A dramatic encounter between a married couple and the husband’s mistress (Li Sha) supposedly led to the murder of the husband and the singer’s suicide.
The film’s theme song is presented as Li Sha’s biggest hit, creeping up from time to time to prelude hauntings. The song’s lyrics about a women longing for the nights when she can see her lover almost perfectly describes the central murder mystery.
After watching the film, it’s understandable why the urban legend behind its theme song has lived on for so long. On one level, there is the clear association of the film’s haunting spirit being played by the song’s singer, which turns a tender love song into a horrifying reminder of a gruesome murder.
On the other, the central idea the film posits is that the supernatural will always take the form of what one fears and believes in. It’s an idea that plays out in the film as well, where the main character’s skepticism towards superstition and determination to disprove the supernatural by envisioning them to life eventually backfires on her. Similarly, the same could be said of any skeptics behind the urban legend, where a little belief is all that is needed to materialise the supernatural.
All these, mixed with Hong Kongers’ attitude towards superstition, turns out to be the perfect ingredients for an enduring urban legend. While the film’s use of its theme song is not as stylistically impressive as the previous pairings featured in this column, The Occupant and “Nights of Entanglement” may be the funnest and most unique yet.
Bringing it all back home
(There may be no subtitles available but I think its animations speak a universal language)
I had a lot of fun compiling the research for this article, mainly due to how Mak have embraced the rumours and seems to have been cheekily playing along with the urban legend. In interviews, she shares similar experiences of hauntings and dark figures whenever she hears the song at night – all while “Nights of Entanglement” remains a staple in her concerts.
While she is no longer as big of a star as she was back in her heyday, it’s not like she is attaching herself to the stories to cling onto relevancy either; the impression I get from one of Cantopop’s most sought-after singing teacher today feels much more wholesome, especially with what both her career and the film represent.
Much like the rest of the field, Mak’s stardom fell off by the 1990s. Negotiations on Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 filled the news throughout the 1980s. The uncertainty implicated by the political changes led to many artists to leave Hong Kong, heralding an end to its cultural golden age.
While Cantopop would soon see the rise of megastars in the form of the Four Heavenly Kings in the 1990s, the industry would again be stifled by politics by the turn of the millennium. This comes particularly with the Chinese government’s encouragement of the locals to adopt Mandarin as the main language, leaving little opportunity for Cantonese media to reach its former heights.
Meanwhile, the traditional synergy between the music and film industry that worked so well during the golden age never returned, with the number of locally-produced films plummeting in the 1990s. All this wasn’t helped by the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, which signalled the decisive end to Hong Kong’s status as an economic powerhouse.
So what has any of this got to do with a cheesy ghost film and its infamous theme song anyway?
As both Hong Kong and its entertainment world draws closer and closer towards another massive political shift, it seems to make sense why the songs of the 1980s – even by lesser-known names such as Connie Mak – still see constant rotation on the radio today and can still be heard sung out by youths in KTVs. Similarly, it’s perhaps the same reason why films from the 1980s and 1990s remain so popular in the Cantonese world.
All of those trends perhaps represent a deep longing for the heyday that Hong Kong will probably never return to. The nostalgia for those days feels palpable even as someone so removed from the city, shining through with just how much Hong Kongers value their unique culture and entertainment world.
Just as a good horror film is able to be an escape from stringent reality, sweet nostalgia is more than capable of doing the job as well. Both The Occupant and “Nights of Entanglement” offer a little bit of both in these fearful times, topped off with an enticing urban legend to be occupied by – even if it’s just for a little while.
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