Hong Kong's densely populated metropolitan society is the on the verge of sliding into chaos, or at least that's the tantalizing possibility explored in wry allegorical terms by director Fruit Chan in his erratic but entertaining post-apocalyptic satire "The Midnight After." The Chinese director's first feature since 2009's ghost story "Don't Look Up" adopts a familiar scenario involving the aftermath of a mysterious event — leaving only a handful of survivors thrust together to sort things out — but fires off in innumerable tonal directions, resulting in a mesmerizing genre hybrid that renders modern China in deliriously cartoonish terms with a dark undertone.
"Based on the novel by Pizza," read the opening credits, which don't lie: Fruit's story culls from the 2012 novel "Lost on a Red Minibus to Taipo," serialized online in 2012 and credited to the aforementioned pen name. The viral history of the source material speaks to the nature of a work distinguished by pertinent themes that it delivers through characters representing virtually every facet of modern Hong Kong. Natives are likely to see a reflection of their cluttered environment and its multifaceted, contradictory ingredients; others may find the collage fascinating to sift through while pondering the prospects of a big picture. Like the irreverent pseudonym of the novel's author, "The Midnight After" features a cheesy exterior that obscures the more satisfying intellectual takeaway beneath the surface.
The story, in which people of different ages and backgrounds ride from the city's Mongkok area to neighboring Taipo, has the simplistic premise of a classic "Twilight Zone" episode: After traveling through a tunnel that connects one neighborhood to the other, they find the entire town (and maybe everything around it) has completely emptied out. The details include your usual sudden end-of-world signifiers: Their phones don't work, the radio stations broadcast static, an ominous figure in a gas mask lurks in the neighborhood's shadows. Having dealt with the antics of a crazy-eyed junkie and a feuding couple on their way across town, the 16 riders have already developed a repertoire, so they immediately begin floating theories about their situation: Is everyone dead? Are they? And whose fault is it, anyway? They decide to go their separate ways and sleep on it, but after receiving the same mysterious call all at once later in the night, the group congregates at a local restaurant the next morning, where most of the bizarre exposition takes place.
We've seen a lot of movies about the end of days that put society under the microscope, but "The Midnight After" shows more interest in the behavior and personalities than with the cause of their conundrum. The majority of the running time finds them enduring power struggles and bouts of confusion in claustrophobic spaces. Confident family man Wong (Simon Yam) automatically becomes the leader of the group, while the portly bus driver (Suet Lam) asserts physical control of their situation. The manager of a music store (Tien You Chi) quietly lurks in the background; a young couple cowers in a separate corner. Another man bemoans the loss of his wife, while a peculiar woman constantly irks the rest of the group by attributing the events around them to astrology. Fruit punctuates their constant squabbling with sudden, ridiculous developments that up the body count and introduce more baffling ingredients. Whether the culprit is a killer virus or something more calculated remains always secondary to watching them react to it.
Fruit's vibrant approach to placing goofy characters under the constraints of serious genre elements echoes Edgar Wright's working class satire in the context of serious genre ingredients, especially "Shaun of the Dead" and "The World End." Just as that buddy comedy about addiction used its alien invasion plot as a mechanism for shrewder personal insights, "The Midnight After" emphasizes the existing social constructs that have already driven its protagonists mad.
In that regard, Fruit's movie exists in the grander tradition of Luis Buñuel's "The Exterminating Angel," where upper class socialites find themselves psychologically unable to leave the house party where the action takes place. In "The Midnight After," it's the ongoing sense of confusion that seems to doom the survivors rather than the forces that put them there.
Fruit's screenplay chronicles their disarray with a canny disposition, undercutting comical moments with shock and gravitas. One prolonged gag finds several of the men attempting to use Google Translate when they come across a foreign survivor but struggling to reconcile a conversation that involves Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and English with hilariously mixed results. Elsewhere, they reference the SARS virus, drug problems and pop culture, literally transforming into representations of the world around them. A final twist incorporating recent events pushes Fruit's sensibilities into a fully realized state. But for its duration, the swirling reference points echo the loopy fragmentation associated with contemporary Asian culture.
While its cryptic humor holds a distinct allure, however, "The Midnight After" struggles to overcome the frustration of its messy tonal shifts. But for every moment of overbearing quirkiness or poor timing, Fruit's pacing snaps together with a profound implication or a uniquely offbeat punchline. Sometimes it achieves both of those things at once: one surreal, harrowing sequence involves the group repeatedly stabbing a rapist who comes into their midst. But the strongest moment arrives with a zany musical interlude set to David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and presented as a key plot point intended to help the survivors understand the sci-fi gobbledygook responsible for their circumstances. Mainly, though, it provides an excuse for the music nerd among them to perform a karaoke performance once he realizes that none of his cohorts are familiar with Bowie. ("And people wonder why Hong Kong has no culture," he mutters.)
"The Midnight After" is jam-packed with ideas about human behavior under the pressure of trauma, and it even manages some uplifting payoff in its triumphant finale, but it never strays from its lively delivery method. "The Midnight After" assails the ramifications of a depersonalized world ruined by technology and rampant self-involvement. Lost in their obsessive personalities, the survivors lose track of any moral compass; echoing their lack of focus, the speed of the storytelling holds fast. During its concluding moments, Fruit cuts from the ludicrous sight of bloody raindrops to a profound onscreen statement about the dangers of losing touch with the present moment. The coda recalls another assertion, made earlier by one of his characters after an abrupt violent twist, that "human ethics no longer apply." By the end, Fruit leaves open the possibility that — for this present-day crowd, anyway — they never did in the first place.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A definite lock for various Asian and genre festivals, "The Midnight After" is too niche-oriented for a mainstream theatrical release, but could do well in ancillary markets due to its genre hook and Fruit's existing reputation.