LEGALLY DECLARED DEAD (2020) short review

Yuen Kim Wai’s Legally Declared Dead is the third adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s 1997 best-seller The Black House, after a 1999 Japanese film directed by Yoshimitsu Morita starring Seiyô Uchino, and a 2007 Korean take by Shin Tae-ra, with Hwang Jung-min. Here, Carlos Chan stars as Yip Wing Shun, an insurance broker still traumatized by his brother’s suicide when he was just a child. So when his client Chu Chung Tak (Anthony Wong) asks for compensation for the suicide of his stepson, Yip takes it upon himself to investigate matters further, as Chu is obviously mentally deranged, living is a squalid home with his limping and visually-impaired wife Shum Tsz Ling (Karena Lam). Legally Declared Dead starts out very promisingly, building an effective sense of dread on solid narrative bases: the minutiae of insurance payouts, Yip Wing Shun’s scarred psyche (illustrated through both haunting flashbacks and unnerving, recurring visions of mantid), the social squalor in which Chu Chung Tak and his wife live, and a creepy score by Yusuke Hatano. With just a dash of campy mystery coming from Liu Kai Chi as a pontificating criminologist, Yuen Kin Wai peels off layers of the plot with both restraint and a sure eye for chilling unease. Anthony Wong is remarkable as the deranged Chu, oscillating masterfully between frailty and threat, keeping the viewer guessing. His double-act with Karena Lam is the main attraction here: the latter is remarkable here, and sheds her natural beauty and charm with an ease that makes Charlize Theron’s performance in Patty Jenkins’ Monster look like it’s right from a L’Oréal commercial. Sympathetic yet ambiguous, pathetic yet charismatic, Karena Lam only drops subtlety in the film’s disappointing final act, a devolution into basic stalk-and-slash tropes that doesn’t deliver on the promise of the first hour. ***