Herman Yau is best known to Westerners for his Category III (restricted rating in Hong Kong) classics, The Untold Story (1993) and The Ebola Syndrome (1996). Both star one of Hong Kong's best actors, Anthony Wong, who won a Hong Kong Film Award for his role in the former; and also both were extremely horrific and sick and compellingly watchable. Subsequent to Ebola, Yau would turn from the visceral to the supernatural and deliver his anthology ghost film, starring a young Louis Koo, Troublesome Night (1997). He would helm the series' next five sequels over a period of a couple of years (the Troublesome Night series would reach nearly twenty sequels). In 2006, Yau made Cocktail, a love story set in a bar, populated by semi-tragic, love-worn-and-torn characters, and highly-influenced by Wong Kar-wai. Wong Kar-wai might have influenced Yau, thematically, but WKW really woke up Yau creatively and created a film maker just as important to current Hong Kong cinema, as WKW, Edmond Pang, Johnnie To, or Tsui Hark, for example. Lethal Ninja (2006) followed Cocktail and it is a coup d'etat of B-cinema, for its boldness of ninja hijinx, ridiculously wonderful characters and plot, and ninety minutes or so of pure movie-going bliss. Yau's darker On the Edge (2006) follows, and his streak continues, as it is the best of the post-Infernal Affairs (2002) wannabes, even surpassing the original in creativity and intensity, with stellar performances by Nick Cheung and Anthony Wong. A Mob Story (2007) would come and become a Yau favorite of mine, as a surreal love triangle combined with hatchets to the face and the introduction of a character named "Goblin." This is just a sampling of Yau's diverse filmography and while his output is inconsistent both thematically and qualitatively, Herman Yau is a major talent. I've never held consistency as shining attribute of an artist, as I believe the artist should take risks: stand or fall on his/her own two feet.
Yau's latest, The First Seventh Night(2009) is about a taxi driver, whose nickname is "Mapking," who is world-worn and traveled (knows the streets better than anyone). He lives out of his taxi, as the opening shots of the film quietly show Mapking (Gordon Lam) changing clothes from the trunk of his taxi, bathing, and cooking dinner at the front of the grill of his car. He's hanging out with the rest of the cabbies on a late-night shift waiting for fares. Over the radio, another cabbie calls in. He needs a taker for a fare: a trucker must be led into the Sun and Moon village. Double the fare plus a few thousand over. None of the cabbies know the location but Mapking. He offers to give directions but with an upped sum for a fare and some badgering, Mapking reluctantly agrees to escort the truck into the village. The trucker and Mapking begin talking on the CB to pass the time. Mapking tells a story that happened at a hotel in the village, run by pretty young Fong (Michelle Ye) and her child Long. Fong is raising her boy all by herself and running the inn and she's tired and down. The hotel doesn't get many visitors, but during the evening, a group of thugs arrive, fresh from a heist. They decide to stay for the evening, and ask Fong to go and cook for them. Fong puts up with their shenanigans--their drinking, loud mouths, and constant demanding. She takes her son upstairs and attempts to rest. One of the thugs steals away from the group and rapes her. The thug comes downstairs and plays cards with the group, saying nothing. Fong and Long quietly later come downstairs and begin to light candles in the shape of a trail. Seven days ago, Fong's husband died, and on the seventh night, his ghost returns. Don't look, says one scared thug, just let them have their greetings, share some hugs, and go away. None of you offended the lady or her husband, did you? The violence comes fast and furious in the form of supernatural gun play, and it's quite bloody, enough to earn its Category III rating. The story of the incident at the inn is pivotal to the film, and what follows after Mapking's telling of the tale is the remaining two-thirds of the film. After Yau's Chaos (2008), I was curious to see Yau's return to the genre at a very low-budget. He succeeds. The First Seventh Night hangs on the nighttime: the scenes with Mapking and the trucker are extremely intriguing, as both characters (with equally strong performances) are hiding something deep within them (of course, later revealed). The use of nighttime scenes only darkens the secrets, ups the tension, and links the present narrative with the story at the inn from the past. The inn sequences are well-done. The inn looks extremely genuine and authentic, from Fong's cooking area to the broken telephone to the candlelight reflected from Fong's vanity mirror. The tension is inherent in the dark atmosphere and it flows fluidly through the story of Fong's visit from the thugs. A low-budget has never been a deterrent for Yau: his visuals are often creative; however, Yau's screenplays, when they are lacking, are often the low point of his work. Not this time. Yau co-scripts a tight thriller with some horrific violence. The dialogue is rich and charged, also terse and focused. All of the performances are tops, not least of all Lam and Ye. The First Seventh Night is creative low-budget filmmaking from a real artist and craftsman. Everyone should be watching what Yau does. It's often exciting.