Legally Declared Dead (2020) Review

Already making over HK$7 million in the Hong Kong box office since its initial release on June 25, Legally Declared Dead <死因無可疑> along with other movies were subsequently forced to halt their theatrical runs due to the third wave of COVID-19 pandemic hitting citywide.

This, in turn, caused cinemas in Hong Kong to shut down until further notice since July 15, marking the second time for the Hong Kong government to do so since its first reopening on May 8.

Fortunately, I’m glad to see Legally Declared Dead <死因無可疑> finally made it to the Malaysian cinemas — which has already premiered since August 20, albeit with little fanfare.

Based on Yusuke Kishi’s 1997’s Japanese novel The Black House, which was previously adapted into both Japanese and Korean films in 1999 and 2007 respectively, the movie centres on a kind-hearted insurance broker Yip Wing-Shun (Carlos Chan), who received a call from a client named Chu Chung-Tak (Anthony Wong) to enquire about compensation for suicidal death.

Then, on the day where Yip visits Chu’s house, he is shocked to discover the corpse of Chu and his wife Shum Chi-Ling’s (Karena Lam) stepson Kafu (Wong Wai-Lung) inside the bedroom.

Although the police eventually confirmed the cause of the child’s death is a suicide, Yip believes that Chu murdered his own stepson for the sake of compensation. Soon, he starts his own investigation to find out the truth about Chu.

First things first, Legally Declared Dead <死因無可疑> boasts a pair of excellent acting showcases from Anthony Wong and Karena Lam. The former brings subtlety to his somewhat odd and mentally-challenged Chu Chung-Tak character, who could have easily gone the overacting route typically associated with such portrayals.

Karena Lam, in the meantime, excels the most as Chu Chung-Tak’s visually impaired wife, Shum Chi-Ling — first as a seemingly quiet and reserved character and manipulative on the other. The kind of disturbing role that reminds me how she used to pull off remarkably well in Soi Cheang’s Home Sweet Home <怪物> (2005).

As for the others, Liu Kai-Chi made good use of his otherwise limited screen time playing a criminal psychology professor while Stephen Au delivers decent support to his sardonic portrayal of a claims adjuster. However, it’s a pity that Kathy Yuen doesn’t fare much in her role as Yip’s university-student girlfriend.

Writer-director Yuen Kim-Wai, whose feature-length directing debut in the Jacky Cheung and Karena Lam-starred 2016 drama Heaven In The Dark <暗色天堂>, made quite an impression venturing into his first psychological-thriller territory. But only to a certain extent, notably how he brings a dread-inducing atmosphere in some of the scenes.

What’s lacking here is that Yuen tends to dial down his direction, where he could have gone for more in terms of depicting the psychological insights of both protagonist (Carlos Chan’s Yip) and antagonists (Anthony Wong’s Chu and Karena Lam’s Shum). The same goes with the shock values — both implied and in-your-face violence — that could have used some heightening tension to help enliven the movie’s otherwise erratic pace.

Then, there’s the plot, with Yuen spending too much time with unnecessary mundane fillers and passive moments (mostly scenes involved Carlos Chan’s Yip). Speaking of Carlos Chan, he is easily among the weakest links in this movie. Although he looks the part playing a straight-arrow role, Carlos Chan’s largely bland portrayal of an insurance broker doesn’t help much to make us — at least to me — involved or sympathise with his character. The latter refers to Yip’s background story, who used to be traumatised by the death of his brother when he was just a kid. And yet, it’s difficult to neither feel or relate what he has gone through — a clear sign that Carlos’ limited acting ability isn’t cut out for such an emotionally complex role.

Frankly, Legally Declared Dead <死因無可疑> has all the potentials of an intriguing psychological thriller. But Yuen’s haphazard direction, coupled with Carlos Chan’s less-than-engaging lead performance and a half-hearted story could only muster a sporadically entertaining movie.

46ef6-two-and-a-half-stars

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