Film * Fruit Chan * A Very Mysterious Apocalypse * 2014
A Brief Re-Introduction
Since I began this blog over two years ago, I think I’ve rather strayed from the initial idea, which was to compose a catalogue of critical discussion about various media which focus on the concept of apocalypse. Now, most of the time I make an effort to make connections between pretty much anything I read, watch, or play and said concepts. Sometimes that is difficult, sometimes (such as anything dealing with Modernism) my arguments are based on historical context and more conventional literary analysis. I’m not going to stop doing that, because I still think it’s fun, but I’m also going to start seeking out more weird shit to talk about.
Specifically, there’s a ton of borderline obscure nonsense on the various streaming services that I’ve been scrolling past the last couple of years that I’ve been unwilling to spend time on. Look, for whatever reason I don’t really like watching movies that much. I mean, I do once I’m watching one, but tricking myself into starting it up in the first place is difficult. I could spend that two hours dinking around in Yakuza 0, you know? However, I’ve assigned myself this, so expect a series of weird fuckin’ movies culled from waaaaaaay down the list on Netflix and whatnot. There is a wide variety of apocalyptically-themed movies out there. Most of them look terrible. But maybe they’re not! I mean, there’s definitely some which appear to be bad-on-purpose B-movie situations, but there are also many that appear to be genuine attempts to do something interesting. We’ll see.
First up is a real weird Hong Kong film that presents a disparate group of people attempting to cope with an indeterminate apocalyptic event. And when I say “real weird” I mean “strap the fuck in because I don’t know what the hell is happening.” The thing is, I expect most of the movies I talk about in the coming weeks will be similar to The Midnight After. There are a lot of cool ideas here, and there are a few things that work really well in this film. However, as a whole, it just never comes together in a satisfying or skillful way. This movie is like the anti-Lost, at least in terms of its storytelling. The film starts strong, and there’s lots of intriguing details and many questions are asked of the viewer, not unlike the seminal TV show of the mid-2000’s. The difference here is that where Lost went off the rails when it started answering too many questions, The Midnight After answers nothing at all. Obviously as a show with seven seasons, Lost had a lot more room to work with, which ended up working against it when there was simply too much time to fill. As a two hour movie, The Midnight After needed to both create the mystery and conclude it quickly and efficiently. It doesn’t bother with the last bit.
The setup is cool, though. The Midnight After begins after midnight, specifically around 2:30 in the morning. The first character we’re introduced to is a sloppy, sweaty, loud minibus driver with a gambling problem who is wearing a shirt proclaiming: “I JUST DID IT with your girl.” He’s fucking great. Anyway, he’s parked on a busy street (despite the time because Hong Kong) and collects a variety of passengers. There’s another older loudmouth, a nerd, another kind of nerd, a couple of street punks, a couple of yuppies up early to watch Premier League soccer, a middle-aged New Age-y lady, a junkie, the cool guy, the cute girl, the weird girl, and four college kids. Another couple try to get on the bus, but they have an argument and bail. Once the bus is on its way, they slowly drive past a terrible accident and see said couple dead on the street. Mysterious! The minibus carries on, and goes through a tunnel.
Once on the other side of the tunnel, the passengers eventually realize that everyone in Hong Kong has disappeared. There is no obvious event that causes this, and as a result most of the passengers carry on as normal. There’s a brief discussion, and some silly theories are tossed around as to why they’re seemingly alone in the usually dense metropolis, but ultimately they all go their separate ways. The only unusual thing they do is swap names and phone numbers, just in case shit gets even weirder and they can reconvene to discuss the situation. Shit does in fact get weirder, and the rest of the film is what happens when this group gets back together and try to figure out what the hell happened. I will say above the break that they do not accomplish this. If you’re looking for a resolution to the story, or any kind of satisfying exposition, you’re not going to get it. The Midnight After does some other things which are pretty cool, though, and the movie looks great. I’m just not sure these things make up for the film’s frustrating shortcomings.
The Midnight After hits its peak an hour or so in. The mysterious apocalypse has taken on aspects of a horror movie by this point. When the cool guy and the cute girl are walking together, some weird stuff starts happening. Cool guy sees a creep in a hazmat suit, but cute girl doesn’t. But then the cute girl also appears as a different, scarier version of herself for a hot second before claiming she saw nothing. Meanwhile, the four college kids are flipping out because one of them became suddenly ill and then spontaneously combusted. Then horrible weird things start happening to the other three. There doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to their afflictions. One guy blows up, another turns to crumbled concrete. Anyway, once cool guy makes it home, he sees that it’s deserted and seemingly has been for a while. Then his, and everyone else’s, phone rings. When they answer, it’s not a person but a horrible, creepy screeching noise. Once this happens, they reconvene at a deli, where the most wonderful thing happens.
There are a lot of issues with this movie, the ending notwithstanding, and a big one is a dizzying shift in tone every five minutes or so. The Midnight After has a hard time deciding what it wants to be. Some of the characters are clearly caricatures, and are there mostly for comic relief. But the movie also wants to be a horror movie. But it also wants to be a suspense film. It also wants to be really fuckin’ weird, which I will concede it succeeds at. Yet it never is able to pull all of these elements together successfully and as a result the movie is fragmented and incoherent, which is a shame because when moments work, they totally work. That above scene with the mysterious phone call is very tense and creepy, what happens afterward – while amazing – is also part of the problem. Now, one of the nerds is a technology guy, and is able to record and figure out the creepy phone call. Turns out it’s Morse code, and the call was a message. What was the message? Well, according to the other nerd they’re lyrics, dude. David Bowie lyrics, specifically. “Space Odyssey,” which is promptly performed in a gloriously strange manner, I mean it’s a full on music video performed by this random dude. Of course as soon as he’s done singing he spontaneously combusts and runs from the restaurant on fire.
You see what I mean by constantly shifting tone? As great as that scene is, it’s bookended by a moment of creeping dread and a scene of noisy terror. But once the guy is dead on the sidewalk, one of the other people causally tosses a sandwich board on top of him like whatever, comedy. Later on, the body of the weird girl is discovered and it turns out that the two punk kids chased her down and raped her. She died midway through due to the undetermined apocalyptic event, which leads to another scene of the survivors taking turns to stab the rapist repeatedly to death with a very small knife. The punk’s name is Airplane. The tone just whips all over the place and it’s impossible to take any of it very seriously, and while I’m totally happy to enjoy a lighthearted apocalypse, this isn’t that because The Midnight After would also like for you to take it seriously.
The problem is that it’s impossible to do that. There are the makings of an intense, horror-ish apocalyptic movie here, but there’s no attempt to maintain that atmosphere. We’re also not given enough information about the nature of the apocalypse, which is important if you’re making a movie like this. To be clear, I don’t need everything spelled out for me, but I do need to something to anchor the events of the film to. Theories are floated by the survivors, but nobody takes any of them particularly seriously, and nothing is ever really decided on. There are plague-like elements to some of the deaths, and others think it might be a Fukushima situation. The cool guy ends up getting a phone call from his girlfriend who claims that he’s been missing for six years, but has no other real details. The film ends with everyone in half-assed protective gear evading official-looking vehicles intent on keeping them in Hong Kong. They escape, but the movie ends before they get to where there might be answers. The characters aren’t ever developed enough to form any strong attachments, so the ambiguous ending falls flat. Like who cares. And that’s a shame, because there are moments of brilliance here.