Considered a true classic of 20th-century English theatre, J.B. Priestley’s three-act play An Inspector Calls has been brought to the stage countless times since it was first performed in 1945, and it’s been a fixture of the BBC’s TV and radio programming (with yet another mini-series in preparation for 2015, starring David Thewlis) but it has comparatively been the object of few big screen adaptations. In fact, Raymond Wong and Herman Yau’s film is the first time the play is adapted for theatrical release since Guy Hamilton’s (of Goldfinger fame) 1954 adaptation. And surely it’s the most unexpected iteration of the story since the 1979 Soviet mini-series Inspector Gull. Screenwriter Edmond Wong transposes the setting from the North Midlands of Great Britain in 1912 to Hong Kong in 2015, but follows J.B. Priestley’s narrative pretty closely : the mysterious inspector Karl (Louis Koo) pays an unexpected visit to the rich Kau family’s estate. Mr. and Mrs. Kau (Eric Tsang and Teresa Mo) are in the final preparations for their daughter Sherry’s (Karena Ng) engagement party as she is soon to marry a handsome young businessman Johnny (Hans Zhang), while their son Tim (Gordon Lam) looks on in contemptuous bemusement, and clearly annoyed at his own girlfriend, socialite Yvonne (Ada Liu Yan). Inspector Karl informs them that a young woman (Chrissie Chau) from Mr. Kau’s factory has been found dead from what appears to be a painful, protracted suicide by disinfectant ingestion. As he starts to interrogate each member of the family in turn, it appears everyone of them was linked to the deceased woman, and everyone may have played a more or less active role in her eventual demise.
This is an interesting but talky premise, befitting the stage more than the big screen, and directors Raymond Wong and Herman Yau resort to a number of variably successful ploys to give the narrative a more spectacular feel. The most striking one, even before the obviously starry cast, is the art direction. The living room itself where the bulk of the film takes place, is a ridiculously flamboyant piece of set design complete with golden pillars, crystal ornaments and Zodiac heads, an effective but incredibly unsubtle rendition of J.B. Priestley’s indictment on capitalist excess. But it is when the film rewinds in flashbacks repicting each family member’s connection to the dead woman (in an instance of the film trying to transcend its stage origins) that the true visual madness commences. With the abundant help of CGI, every flashback is colourful to the extreme, filled with a wealth of weird and whimsical details (a la Tim Burton, some have noted), and above all outrageously phantasmagorical : the fact that the victim provided Johnny with emotional comfort, for instance, is shown by Chrissie Chau sprouting a pair of wings and flying around a gaudy dreamscape with Hans Zhang in her arms, while her humiliation and lay-off at the hands of Mr. Kau is portrayed by having a tiny Chrissie Chau shrunk to the size of an ant and fighting for her life against the gigantic objects on Eric Tsang’s desk. These crazy flashbacks are quite entertaining if a bit overbearing : and indeed how delightfully ironic that J.B. Priestley’s critique of capitalist excess is now brought to the screen thanks to – and for the purpose of – you guessed it, capitalist excess.
Raymond Wong and Herman Yau also pad out the film with a great number of stars, not only in the pivotal roles but also in a long list of cameos. Louis Koo is good fun as the titular inspector, though the directors never seem to choose between making him as a mysterious avenging angel (he even has a glowing red stare at some point) as he is often represented on stage, or as a bumbling and pompous avatar of The Pink Panther‘s Inspector Clouseau : witness Koo’s comically thunderous tone and his frantically clumsy attempts at retrieving a key piece of evidence from his coat pocket. The Kau (formerly Birling) family is well cast, with the highlight being Eric Tsang, who embodies perfectly – and with his usual immaculate comic timing – the “heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties” described by Priestley. The cameos range from aimless (Michael Tse as an agile club waiter) to delightful (Kelly Chen in a role we won’t reveal), but it’s Raymond Wong and Donnie Yen who really impress, the former in six different roles, and the latter as all four members of a band singing Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ famous song ‘Sherry Baby’ at the engagement party (the man can sing). In the end, much of the original play’s edge is dulled by the outrageous art direction, distractingly starry cast and eventual likability of characters we should end up disgusted with, but this iteration of An Inspector Calls is a charming oddity nevertheless.
Long Story Short : With its garish art direction, phantasmagorical sequences and starry cast, An Inspector Calls doesn’t so much dull the edge of its source material as bury it under a pile of Lunar New Year entertainment staples. Still, it’s an entertaining oddity that gives a classic play an amusing makeover. ***