“Fu Bo” is a film which takes place in a location rather unusual for Hong Kong cinema: a morgue. Although there have been a number of films, mostly horror comedies, with this setting (such as the childish “Mortuary Blues”), there are very few which seek to deal with their subject matter in such an earnest, serious manner as “Fu Bo”. This is not to say that the film is free from the trappings of exploitation cinema, but merely that, like the classic Danish thriller “Nightwatch”, it treats its surroundings with an even handed approach, which if not reverential, is at least approaching realistic.
The film is at heart a philosophical exploration of life and death as seen through the eyes of a group of men whose work brings them into contact with the gruesome practicalities of existence on a daily basis. Although not wholly effective, being too slow and disjointed to truly satisfy, “Fu Bo” does stand out as an ambitious and different film which is often quite fascinating. The plot actually has several threads, following a young man (Sze-Chi Lee) starting work as an a assistant to the mortician (the ‘Fu Bo’ of the title, played by Kai Chi Liu, “Infernal Affairs 2”), an increasingly deranged hitman, and a Portuguese chef who cooks the last meals for condemned prisoners as well as listening to their stories.
The three stories each give a different perspective on death, and a range of experiences and emotions, as we see how the lives of the different characters are affected by their constant contact with the business end of human mortality. The choice of directors Kung Lok Lee and Ching Po Wong to employ such a divergent narrative is only partly successful, however. Although all three stories are interesting, they never really come together in a satisfying manner, and as such the plot comes across as being meandering and anecdotal, lacking any kind of driving force.
Although all of this fits the film’s philosophical tone, and adds an almost documentary feel in places, as a whole it fails to engage, especially the triad themed tale of the contract killer, which often feels tacked on. Having said this, “Fu Bo” is certainly an interesting, ambitious film which deserves recognition for attempting to tackle such a lofty subject. Though often quite slow and padded out by long scenes of dialogue, “Fu Bo” does manage to avoid being too pretentious or dull.
The film’s most interesting parts are those which focus on the Fu Bo himself, showing the technique and emotional responses to his grisly work, as well as exploring his rather sad personal life. Directors Lee and Wong go to great pains to create a realistic recreation of the mortician’s job, with an admirable attention to detail that at times make the film feel more like a character study than anything else. Kai Chi Liu turns in an excellent central performance, giving his character an incredible emotional depth despite not having a great amount of dialogue.
Of course, since the film has a category III certificate, it does involve showing a fair amount of gore, including some unpleasant autopsy footage, including one disgusting sequence involving the corpse of an infant. However, the downbeat, ponderous tone of the proceedings means that few of the visceral scenes feel gratuitous or inserted for shock value alone. There are no scares in the film, and though it is fairly nihilistic, it is cold rather than vicious or sadistic.
Perhaps more startling is the presence of genre king Anthony Wong (“The Untold Story”), who yet again plays a psychopath, though this time in a soft spoken manner free from the usual histrionics. Eric Tsang (“Infernal Affairs”) and Paulyn Sun (“Ichi the Killer”) also have cameos as a prisoner and the Fu Bo’s ex-wife, respectively, though they have little screen time. These celebrity appearances aside, “Fu Bo” is a decidedly low-key affair, with the feel of an independent production rather than a traditional Hong Kong film. The visuals are subdued, though effective without being flashy or obtrusive, and are generally shot in a naturalistic style. Whilst at times this means that the proceedings are poorly lit or slightly out of focus, it goes some way to creating a creepy, if sterile atmosphere.
This reserved approach, along with the ponderous plot, makes “Fu Bo” a very different film from what may be expected after seeing the lurid box art which seems to promise some kind of gory detective thriller. The film is quite hard to categorise, and its appeal lies mainly in its mature tackling of a difficult subject, with a surprising amount of restraint. Although quite fascinating in its way, and anchored by some excellent acting, the film is too slow to appeal to gore fans, and more likely to be enjoyed by patient viewers who seek thoughtful cinema which is unafraid of offering meditations rather than easy answers.
Kung-Lok Lee, Ching-Po Wong (director)
CAST: Jacob Mense, Tung Cho ‘Joe’ Cheung, Sze-Chit Lee, Kai Chi Liu, Doi-yung Ng, Paulyn Sun, Eric Tsang, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang