On a night just like tonight, a colorful group of strangers come together on a long bus ride home. But when they come out the other side of a long tunnel, they’ll quickly find the world a much stranger, deadlier place…in The Midnight After.
The Midnight After, from director Fruit Chan, is a comedy-horror experience straight from Hong Kong and proud of it. It’s concept is terrifying. The imagery is a morbid delight. And more importantly, it’s also an experience unlike anything else you’ve seen.
Now given the movie’s origins as a web-novel published in pieces on an internet forum, it’s not surprising to see it struggle with basic things like pacing and structure. But even if that hadn’t been the case, Mr. Chan is also a Hong Kong New Wave director, which is a style of Chinese filmmaking that emerged in the late-1980s and early-90s. During this time, a new generation of directors with a Western-style education were, unsurprisingly, also heavily influenced by Western cinema. Such films were generally a stark contrast to studio films of the time, and were a bit more experimental, a bit more incoherent. And, as a result, The Midnight After has little in the way of a plot or story. Scenes just sort of carry on at their own leisure. And characters bicker constantly for the sake of bickering.
But somehow it all works out.
Again, the plot is paper-thin, but it’s far from nonexistent. A group of strangers board a bus one night, enter a tunnel, and come out the other side to find some strange hell waiting for them that they must now try to survive and escape. All the beats are in place, and it follows a solid, basic structure that is easy to follow.
The movie’s story, however, is nearly non-existent. This is very much a plot-driven movie where the characters are dragged from one strange moment to the next, and we observe how they react to it, how they’re tortured by whatever mess they find themselves in or even make for themselves. And ultimately their choices are made for them, rather than directly influencing anything.
But because the strange world and incident they’re facing is so far beyond their scope of understanding, because the movie is focused on showcasing how bizarre its horrors are, the story can’t really be much more complex without being much, much longer to compensate for it. In the end, The Midnight After successfully delivers on the story it set out to tell. It just also happens to be a wholly basic and shallow story.
FLAWED, AREN’T WE ALL?
Now for some, this all might prove to be an issue.
Because the movie would rather focus on its bizarre scenario and the horrors that plague its characters, it also isn’t one to make sense of itself. If the characters don’t know what’s going on, neither do we. If they don’t get an answer to some question we’re all thinking, we, the audience, don’t get an answer either. And those same characters–as colorful as they are–as solid the performances of the movie’s cast may be–are little more than flat caricatures and basic archetypes. For as likable or detestable or weird as they truly are, there’s little depth to any of them. We don’t get a better sense of who they are, where they came from, or what they want as a person aside from how they react to everything going on around them and how they interact with one another.
But again, the movie is an excuse to watch a group of weird characters put into strange situations and conflict with each other. It’s an excuse to see how they fight, freak out, die, kill, and maybe survive. The weird stuff allows the character stuff to happen. The character stuff brings the comedy. And ultimately that’s enough reason to care whenever something frightening happens on screen.
Consider the classic American slasher movie–the so-called “body count” film, like those from the Halloween or Friday the 13th franchises. In such horror movies where a strange killer goes around butchering teens and young adults, does it really matter much that the characters are hardly fleshed out? Does the plot and story need to be much more than excuse to have the killer run through the would-be victims one after the next?
With that sort of context in mind, the strange grabbag of stereotypes that we watch suffer are easy to love, laugh at, and be scared for. None of them feel under-served or without purpose. They have clear desires and goals, even if that’s simply to make it out of this alive. And you’ll likely be rooting for a good chunk of them to survive despite some of the things they say and do, which is a fun, fresh change of pace for these sorts of movies.The overacting and scene-chewing is intentional and feels at home in a movie where the conflict is so sudden and over-the-top. Everything is turned up to 10, and the movie is all the better for doing so.
A STRANGER THING
That all having been said, the language barrier is sure to prove an issue for some. And Chan’s predilection for depicting small-scale Hong Kong life and culture could prove to be too much culture shock for even those who are fine with reading subtitles.
But should you give The Midnight After a fair shot, you’ll likely thank yourself afterward. It serves as a clear example of how the journey can also be the destination. It’s fun, creative, and without a dull moment. And as a result, The Midnight After is also a strange, but definite CHILL.