Film Review: ‘Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost’ Conjures a Snug Romantic-Comedy With an Interesting Premise
Wang Xiao Gua works all day but still doesn’t have a car or even a house. In the afterlife after his death, he was arranged to become a contestant for the variety show Hell Bank Presents “ Running Ghost”.
Director: Mark Lee
Cast: Wong You Nam, Cecilia So, Jerry Lamb, Zeno Koo, Venus Wong
Country: Hong Kong
Runtime: 81 minutes
Golden Horse Award nominee Mark Lee’s third directorial effort Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost conjures an interesting premise: a gameshow for and featuring the deceased finding the best scarer around. Where Running Ghost stumbles is in its self-imposed limits, featuring familiar crowd-pleasing genre tropes that have been haunting romantic-comedies for ages. It’s a formula that will delight just as many as it will annoy. Yet, Running Ghost is far from just a cash grab without finesse. Solid writing, an engaging world, and fine performances bring out the best of what it aims to be.
Shortly after his death, Xiao Gua (Wong You Nam) is selected to take part in the underworld’s variety show “Running Ghost”. Three rounds of challenges pit contestants against each other to determine the best tormentor of the human realm, with the ultimate winner given the opportunity to reincarnate at any place, at any time.
Xiao Gua endeavours to reach the top to fulfil his pact of always protecting his childhood sweetheart Bao Er (Venus Wong). Yet, the odds are stacked against the awkward youth, with only a few friends and ghost whisperer Ling Qi (Cecilia So) by his side.
Running Ghost presents its world-building at a blink-and-miss-it pace. The Chinese view of the afterlife is sprinkled with modern twists, filled with smart watches, computers, and even digital wallets. These probably would have felt tacky if it wasn’t for the film’s dedication to its otherworldly setting. Just about every resident of the underworld is featured with goofy makeup while prancing around in their ridiculous getups, adding to the film’s lighthearted tone.
The sparse sets, however, does no favours. While the choice would have been in line with the film’s overall cheesy aesthetic, it came off as amateurish especially when contrasted with the great CGI work. Further bogging the film down is how it felt like there was no interest in expanding beyond what it presents of this modern underworld. Running Ghost excels best when it sticks to its gameshow premise. Yet, this would mainly only serve as a vehicle for a formulaic love story.
It’s a recipe executed with precise discipline, fostering the film’s rigidness while ascertaining its inability to fail at the box office. The story makes it easy to relate to the downtrodden lead. Just about every crowd-pleasing trope in the book is ticked off with firm pen strokes. The little room that is left for seasoning is dedicated to flourishes such as callbacks, payoffs and light yet disarming twists to the love story.
Running Ghost strives for relatability with the Hong Kong audience with its healthy dose of welcomed references and jokes. The romance is familiar but charming — albeit doused with too much mawkishness at parts. Venus Wong excels as the quirky female lead with more than enough agency and energy to spare. She is the picture-perfect foil for Xiao Gua, with Wong You Nam straddling the line between being annoyingly passive and truly embodying warm good-heartedness.
The film’s poster announces: “A horror film with romance, action, comedy!” It doesn’t get any more straightforward than that. There is heart in the film — plenty of it — and there are absolutely no qualms with where it directs its energy. Coming in at a lean 81 minutes, Running Ghost is a fuss-free affair that knows exactly what it wants and what it needs to be for whom.
Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost arrives in cinemas islandwide 1 April.