When Vampire Cleanup Department hit the screens in 2017, then first-time directors Yan Pak-wing and Chiu Sin-hang showed a flair for crafting fun throwbacks to old-style Hong Kong supernatural cinema. Now Yan is back for more with Hotel Soul Good, a light romantic comedy-drama that draws from the same screen traditions.
The film opens with Katy Chow (Chrissie Chau) running a flashy hotel and being generally obnoxious as she wields power, but a huge comedown is on the way. One night driving home, she comes to a stop as an old Taoist mystic (Helena Law) picks up dropped crabs from the street. When an accident follows and Katy has a near-death experience, a third eye opens, giving her the ability to see ghosts.
Once recovered from her injuries, Katy finds the tables turned back at the office and she’s sent packing. Now unemployed and moping at home, she’s joined by three wandering spirits (Richard Ng, Maggie Shiu and Eric Kot) who are caught in limbo between hell and reincarnation. They all have unfinished business to take care of, and they recruit her to find a “yin” (as opposed to “yang”) person they can possess to make their wishes come true. The target body belongs to lovelorn funeral offerings seller Jason Cheung (Louis Cheung) and, once he’s roped in for the job, he and Katy find themselves in for unexpected turns that include managing an odd little guesthouse and coming face to face with the guardians of the underworld.
As the story moves along, Yan and his team gently bring in aspects of past Hong Kong ghost cinema as well as local tradition and mythology related to death. Genre veteran Helena Law is on hand to play an old lady expert in all things ghostly, and various props relate to funerals and gifts for the dead. When the friendly phantoms chip in to take over a small hotel, for instance, they pile up hell bank notes burned for the dead, and ghoul gadgetry likewise comes from paper offerings. Amid all this the mood remains light and playful, and the retro touches and genre approach recall Hong Kong cinema vibes of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Hotel Soul Good was shot with a modest budget, and that can make for some scenes looking rather cheap – an issue that also turned up in Vampire Cleanup Department. And the film takes a looser approach than its quick-moving predecessor did. But the filmmakers compensate with an upbeat spirit and a plenty of heart in the character arcs. A pleasing ensemble carries the moods particularly well. Star Chrissie Chau steps up to tackle a broad range of acting, from handing cold bitchiness to quirky comedy to emotional drama, and builds on achievements in recent quality works. Louis Cheung gives an enjoyable performance alongside her, while Richard Ng, Maggie Shiu, Eric Kot and other veteran players revel in the film’s cheery nostalgic side.
Ghost stories have been on the wane in Hong Kong cinema over the past decade or so, given the mainland censorship block on the supernatural in co-productions and the risk of audience disinterest at home. Yet Yan and his players appear to have kept up their enthusiasm all the same in crafting their mix of traditional spookiness and touching, feel-good cinema. Even if Hotel Soul Good was ultimately a minor release in Hong Kong, it offered a welcome move to keep local cinema diverse.