LEGALLY DECLARED DEAD (2019) Reviews of Hong Kong neo-Noir thriller

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‘Unlock the mystery’
Legally Declared Dead is a 2020 Hong Kong neo-noir thriller about an insurance agent who suspects a father of killing his son by hanging.

Directed by Kim-Wai Yuen, the Emperor Film production stars Anthony Wong, Karena Lam, Carlos Chan and Kai Chi Liu.

Yip, played by Carlos Chan from White Storm 2 and Integrity, is an insurance salesman. He is called to a client’s residence one afternoon thinking he will be updating their insurance policy, but when he arrives he finds the client’s son dead in his bedroom.

Instantly he starts to suspect the father, Chiu played by Anthony Wong, and he tries everything he can to ensure the policy doesn’t get paid out, suspecting foul play is involved.

As Yip gets further and further caught up in this case, he starts to fear for Chiu’s wife Shum, played by Karena Lam, believing that she will be next in his plan to defraud the insurance company. With the help of his girlfriend, a psychologist and his boss, Yip starts to uncover the truth as he gets caught up in Chiu’s game…

It’s stylish, it’s atmospheric and it’s a return to form for Hong Kong filmmaking. Based on best selling Japanese novel, this is the third movie iteration of the story, with previous entries named after the novel “The Black House” made in 1999 from Japan and 2007 from Korea. Now it’s Hong Kong’s turn, and they’ve brought out some big guns to compete.

This is a good old-fashioned thriller movie from start to end, with a few twists along the way to keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat. It’s very stylish in its presentation. Muted colour grading has been applied to many scenes, especially scenes that double up as flashbacks, and these are done seamlessly, with a real highlight of this technique used in the elementary school scene.

On top of that are some quite deliberate framing and lighting choices by the filmmakers, with scenes of either complete symmetry or just totally out of balance. This works very well towards the end of the film.

The pacing is just right, the performances are spot on, the story is exciting and while you’ll probably work out what’s going on at the halfway mark, the final half of the movie is engaging enough to keep you wanting to watch it to see if your theory is correct.

Anthony Wong has a filmography of over two hundred movies, and while he might play bit parts in a lot of those movies, the ones where he is the lead are usually a good watch, and this film is no different. His role is of a mentally handicapped father who is the main suspect in the supposed suicide of his son, and the backstory given to his character, alongside some menacing shots and camera angles, really goes a long way into developing his persona and potential motivations.

Supporting Anthony Wong is Karena Lam, from the well-known horror films Koma and Inner Senses. Her role as the semi-blind in-danger wife is one of the best parts of this film, as is watching Carlos Chan’s character of Yip slowly lose his mind as the film reaches the crescendo.

The story, the way it’s told and all the twists are very solid, giving an insight into the desperation of the main family and the insurance salesman who just wants to do the right thing no matter how much danger that puts him in.

Unusually, with thrillers like this, the reveal occurs just after the halfway mark, and while it’s a good reveal that fits the film, you then start to wonder how the remaining part of the film will hold up now that you know what’s going.

Luckily, director Yuen Kim-Wai has left a few tricks up his sleeve to ensure your interest remains. However, the lead up to the end scene, and most of the end scene itself, feels a little out of character for one or more of our protagonists in this film. Without giving too much away, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll hopefully understand. And again, luckily the ending is strong enough to be able to overlook this small issue.

Legally Declared Dead is a very enjoyable film, although there is a bit of bias over the fact that I do love most of what Anthony Wong does. This is no exception. If you’re after a classic Asian thriller, with strong dark themes, engaging acting and directing, with stylish noir-type cinematography, then this is a film you want to see.

The Arty Dans, guest reviewer via Asian Film Fans

Other reviews:
“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…” Asian Film Strike

Declared Legally Dead is a good example of slick, highly competent Hong Kong filmmaking without any original ideas. The scenario and direction lack the grace notes and originality to appeal to cinephiles. And there’s not enough horror to appeal to genre fans, either. One thing that’s impressive: the lush score by Yusuke Hatano, utilizing the Budapest Art Orchestra.” Chris Knipp

” …Wong impresses early as he digs deep into his acting repertoire for another nuanced portrayal of controlled madness. It is Lam who inevitably steals the show; the elegant actress plays against type […] to gradually bring a nightmarish dimension to the film. In the end, you just wish that Yuen had gone for visceral shock, or delved deeper into the perpetrator’s mind, either of which would have made Legally Declared Dead a far more memorable film.” South China Morning Post

Cast and characters:
Anthony Chau-Sang Wong … Chiu, Chung-tak
Kar Yan Lam … Shum, Chi-ling (as Karena Lam)
Carlos Chan … Yip, Wing-shun
Kai Chi Liu … Kam, Ching-sek
Yee Tong … Man, Wai-yee (as Kathy Yuen)
So-Bo Fung … Principal Cheng
Stephen Au … Chiang, Rui (as Au Kam Tong Stephen)
Wai-Ho Auyeung … Cheung, Kin-Lo (as Au Yeung Wai Ho)
Joey Tang … Gambling House Manager
Tsun-Hung Liu … Mr Lau (as Tsun Hung)

Technical details:
109 minutes
Aspect ratio: 2.66: 1
Audio: Dolby Digital | Dolby Surround 7.1

Original title:


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