Ghost Man is a short film shot guerilla style in the streets around the infamous Chunking Mansions of Hong Kong by Asian-Australian auteur Matthew Pastor, whose debut feature Made in Australia won the award for Best Guerrilla Film at the 2013 Melbourne Underground Film Festival.
Ghost Man opens on a ‘living statue’ street performer, made up in silver, during a break. We spend some time with him on the street and in his apartment, unmasked, making tea, reading and grinning like some kind of cosmic fool. The film then cuts to two young men, a portly fellow and a slim fellow (called by these nomenclatures for the purpose of this review, given their namelessness in the film), standing at a street corner waiting for the lights to change. Portly complains to Slim that life isn’t easy and that his girlfriend, Jenny, calls him fat. They spend some time photographing a stray cat. Slim confesses that he ‘can’t do relationships’. Despite Portly’s concerns that his girlfriend also doesn’t like him due to his being an artist, Slim reassures him that Jenny isn’t a gold digger. The film then cuts to a telephone conversation between a guy who works in IT and the provider of a service that will teach him the skills to ‘fuck any bitch you want’. We learn that IT guy really just wants a companion. Title cards then tell us a word at a time that ‘THERE IS NO LOVE’ as a song starts and something of a montage begins. We see Slim at an ATM. There are more cat shots. IT guy sits eating a meal by himself at a restaurant. Slim goes into a brothel. A lady at the restaurant forgets her purse and IT guy chases after her. Their conversation is told in title cards like in a silent picture. We find out that the lady is Portly’s girlfriend, Jenny, who tells IT guy that she loves Portly but hasn’t told him yet. However, Portly sees the two of them together from afar and his unfounded, jealous rage has tragic consequences.
Ghost Man is an awkward blend of several narratives: a universal tragi-comedy of lives revolving around the still axis of the titular, archetypal fool who bookends the film; a love-and-sex drama of young, urban, disillusioned Asians; and a sendup of vacuous, modern relationships. It’s partly this uncertainty of purpose that leads the film to falter on several fronts, namely: things of little consequence are given too much screen time (three of thirteen minutes is spent with the street performer at the start unnecessarily, an inordinate amount of time is given to stray cats); the chronic exposition in the dialogue makes it difficult to sympathise with the characters (Portly’s rant about a Korean, dentist ex-girlfriend whose parents turned nasty when they found out he was an artist); and the points of tension seem superficial, making the film somewhat trite (the under-appreciation of Portly’s creativity, IT guy’s lack of love life, Jenny not telling Portly that she loves him).
For the most part, the characters float along clichés and lack any real sense determination. As the main character of the film, by dint of his actions having the greatest repercussions, Portly’s character development is the least satisfying. His leap from seemingly harmless guy venting to his friend to full-blown psycho was implausible given the very little insight we were given to his subjectivity or to the unreliability of his character. Perhaps the most interesting character is that of Slim, as he is followed through the streets into a brothel, the film shows us his story, rather than signposting it in no uncertain terms. Slim’s story also best connects with the kinetic energy of the location so well captured by Australian DOP Christopher Doyle in Wong Kar-wai’s brilliant homage to the area in Chungking Express. Outside of Slim’s story, Ghost Man misses the opportunity to use the location to push its themes.
Ultimately, the themes of loneliness, creative frustration and misunderstandings in love are handled rather clumsily, probably as a result of the guerilla approach to the filmmaking. The glaring problems of poor character development and haphazard narrative craft leave Ghost Man with the feeling that it gets to the punch line without telling the right story.
Ghost Man premiers in the US at the San Pedro International Film Festival.