Film can sometimes give voice to those whose stories are clouded by history. And so it is with Hong Kong director Herman Yau’s latest effort, The Sleep Curse, a blood-splattered horror film that still manages to make its audiences think.
The reason for that alone is its depiction of a subject many Asian commercial filmmakers would leave well enough alone – the “comfort women” forced to work in brothels under the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 1940s.
“[This film] is to speak for the women,” screenwriter Erica Li said at the recent Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy. “Especially for those who cannot speak for themselves, like the victims of the war. This topic was trying to tell the world that some justice is still undone.”
On face value, gore-hounds will be thrilled by this new collaborative effort from director Yau and star Anthony Wong, who together produced now-legendary exploitation films such as The Untold Story (1993) and Ebola Syndrome (1996). Those films were defined by their shock value and this film does not disappoint in that regard, while Wong again brings his chillingly maniacal acting to the party.
Flashing back and forth between 1942 and 1990, the film unfolds across generations between neuroscientist Lam Sik-ka (Wong) and his father Lam Sing (also by Wong), who served as a translator for Japanese occupational forces in Hong Kong. Sing hides a sinful past; he failed to save a comfort woman (Michelle Wai) from persecution by the occupiers. Sik-ka learns that his father’s death was due to a curse applied by the woman, and so the ancestral karma gradually starts to haunt him as well.
It should come as no surprise that the portrait of the Japanese military presented in The Sleep Curse is one of brutal and merciless occupiers. Hollywood A-lister Angelina Jolie did the same in Unbroken (2014), and the film was labeled in some parts as anti-Japanese propaganda. So it remains to be seen what the reaction is this time around – in Japan, specifically. But director Yau says his motives were true – and honest.
“I did a lot of research … I tried my best to manifest the authenticity of history,” says Yau.
The director even explains that the purpose of mentioning Ryunosuke Akutagawa was to dilute – somewhat – the film’s tone. Akutagawa, a world-renowned Japanese writer active in the Taisho period (1912-1926), was noted for infusing anti-militarism and anti-war ideology into his novels. Akutagawa’s compilation is briefly touched upon in one scene when a Japanese troop barges into Sing’s house. The scene can perhaps be interpreted, though subtly, as reflecting on the duality of the Japanese characters, thus avoiding their absolute demonization.
Also – beneath all the blood and guts – the film’s primary concern can be seen as the suppression of women under the phallocentrism of war and militarism. The women depicted — especially those in their adolescence — are kidnapped and exploited as comfort women or geisha-like entertainers to satiate the male appetite for pleasure.
In the flashback scenes, they are consistently depicted as “the weak” and subjugated to men — at least until Wai’s character starts to initiate her vengeance. This is when the whole film begins to assume an upsettingly subversive ambience.
The hex that haunts the characters over decades demonstrates the profundity of the ghost’s rancor against those who turned their backs on her, hence the film’s unnerving quality. It makes the audience feel her rage – and it’s an undeniable fact that women of the time were socially vulnerable and thus exploited.
Chances are you’ll come to see The Sleep Curse looking for its B-grade thrills – but you’ll leave pondering a far bigger picture.
The Sleep Curse will be released first in Hong Kong on May 18.