Children can be a real handful. I neither have nor want any, myself, and I suppose, to some people, this makes me a bad person. It’s not that I don’t like kids (some would say that I act like one). Some of them I get along with like gangbusters. But in the main, I prefer them in small doses. Cinema has done nothing to disparage this perspective. For every Gordie Lachance, there’s one or more Clifford Danielses. I think the problem lies in the fact that most screenwriters simply don’t quite get writing child characters. This is funny, because at one point or another in life, we’ve all been one. These characters tend to be either tooth-achingly sweet or misanthropically self-centered. Even giving them a reason for their bad behavior doesn’t discount their actions. Further, children are more often than not written to be little adults, unreasonably wise beyond their years, because, you know, making mud pies is beneath them (or, at the very least, makes for bad movie watching). When kids are given supernatural powers, they get even worse, most especially when they’re already dead. This is a mainstay of Asian ghost stories, where children who died horrible deaths come back to take vengeance on adults who didn’t even have anything to do with their demises. Such is the case with Dennis Yu’s The Imp (aka Xiong Bang).
Keung (Charlie Chin) can’t get hired for anything. It’s not that he doesn’t put in the effort. The whole universe just seems to be against him. With a baby on the way, he finally lands a job as a security guard in a large building complex. But the titular entity has plans for Keung, his friends, and his family, and none of them are very good.
The Imp takes its horror concept and posits it in everyday life. Keung and his wife Lan (Dorothy Yu) are low-income people struggling to make ends meet. The pressure of their impending bundle of joy crushes down on them. They are normal folks with real-world issues. This is compounded by Keung’s inability to find work. His familial responsibilities weigh heavily on him, but he keeps trying. Chin does a great job of encompassing both the sad sack and Everyman aspects of his character. At work, Keung is surrounded by character types, all of them just grounded enough to be believable. Han (Chan Shen) is the elder of the group, the leader. He’s an old hand and accepting of Keung. Fatty (Kent Cheng) is, no surprise, the fat guy, but the film doesn’t define him by his weight, ironically enough. He’s not some slob constantly stuffing food into his face. These two are the most important in Keung’s story, because they are the ones most eager to help Keung out (Fatty even transports Lan to her pre-natal appointments). Yet, Han considers firing Keung when the fatalities start piling up. He’s not above letting superstition guide his actions, though his decisions may be in the best interest of all involved, save Keung. The other two that we are introduced to, Ting (Hui Bing-Sam) and Mr. Hong Kong (Wong Ching), are more peripheral. Ting is a bookworm with very little interaction with Keung. Mr. Hong Kong is a bit of a boorish dolt who doesn’t really care for dogs. Yu gives all of the characters just enough personality to distinguish one from another, and they are compelling enough to get us involved in their fates. Even when all Hell breaks loose, the film maintains a certain sense of grounding. This is a world where the supernatural reigns, but the characters still have to get up and go to work every day.
The mystical elements of the film focus strongly on predestination, especially as it pertains to the concept of Yin and Yang. Keung was born under the strongest possible Yin signage (being both sinister and feminine, this points to not only Keung’s fate but also a character weakness that makes him a bit of a pushover). Under the tutelage of Master Chiu (Yueh Hua), a Taoist (?) priest, Keung attempts to defy his destiny. They post amulets in places of power, they fix the Feng Shui in Keung’s apartment, and so on. But the ghost always comes out on top. There is a sense of desperation at play in the film, even when the characters are going through a ceremony that they believe has to work. It’s this struggle to thwart fate which drives the horror of the film. The characters believe in the use of magic to aid their cause, and the film accepts that these things exist. Yet, it never goes so far as making them feel outlandish. They’re simply another component of this world.
Yu and company take their story very seriously. There is little to no humor in the film, as might be expected in a Hong Kong film of this vintage. Fatty, the clear, viable target for derision is treated like an ordinary guy who just happens to be overweight. He doesn’t do pratfalls, he doesn’t make a pig of himself. Keung is fighting for his life and soul as well as that of his family, and hope is threadbare. It’s this grim earnestness that makes The Imp such an affecting experience and one worthy of praise.
MVT: The film’s tone strikes just the right amount of dread.
Make or Break: The finale is tense and serious, and it brings home the message.