Lau Shing (Stephen Fung) leaves behind his wife Man-Wei (Jess Zhang Qian) and little daughter Ling-Gi (Kau Lap-Yi) in their hometown, to start a prosperous herbal medicine business in turn-of-the-century Hong Kong. Four years on, Lau’s lovely business partner Susie (Debbie Goh) begs him to stay, but he is set on returning home. Following their late night dinner, Susie catches Lau’s trusted right-hand man Pang Shi (Raymond Wong) setting fire to their shop to repay his triad debts. The fire kills all of Lau’s friends and he winds up framed for arson. Kindly prison guard Fong Lik (Steven Cheung) cajoles his cousin, feisty young lawyer Lam Siu-Chin (Gillian Chung, one half of Cantopop duo “Twins”) into taking his case.
Her efforts are hampered by Pang and the triads pressuring witnesses not to testify, while still-missing Susie periodically pops up as a scarlet spectre. On the final day of Lau’s trial, an accident puts Siu-Chin in a coma and her client is sentenced to death. But the Lam family are experts in all things supernatural. Aided by an enigmatic executioner (Lo Meng, onetime member of The Five Deadly Venoms), Siu-Chin springs Lau out of jail. They have only forty-nine days to clear Lau’s name and protect his family from the predatory Pang, who is after the deed to their property.
Rhinoceros horn, a crucial bit of kit for Chinese herbalists, has a major plot function in this engaging supernatural thriller. Supposedly used to massage pressure points or scrape toxins, here it’s mixed into a magic candle that helps reveal a crucial plot twist. It’s a twist horror fans will have seen many times before, but unusually occurs midway into the story and is quite well done, precipitating a series of heartbreaking turns in Lau’s seemingly ill-fated life.
49 Days draws heavily upon traditional Chinese beliefs and like many Hong Kong horror movies, hinges on a clash between old and new. Modern girl Siu-Chin is a constant calamity to her superstitious father (Wong Yat-Fei), having inadvertently offended local spirits by peeing on sacred ground, and initially takes on Lau’s case only to prove her law credentials are the result of her own hard work, not Mr. Lam’s Taoist prayers. The mystery unfolds by how characters interpret seemingly ambiguous events, filtered through their growing knowledge of the supernatural, much the same as Lau re-interprets the Chinese ideograms on a letter from his family to his clueless friend.
Some sources credit veteran producer/actor Tsui Siu Ming as co-director on this film which, if true, speaks to his love of weaving traditional superstitions into offbeat storylines, most notably in his geomancy-themed action-adventure Bury Me High (1991). In his first genre outing, Lam Kin-Lung’s occasionally hectic direction leaves a few episodes hard to follow on first viewing, but he draws a compelling performance from Raymond Wong as the odious killer and weaves an affecting story. This is the kind of horror film distributors market as a “supernatural thriller”, since it gently chills rather than strikes hearts with terror. That said, an eerie sequence with an urn-dwelling ghost and an attack by a flock of demonic ravens are suitably striking, while the nightmarish blaze that turns Lau’s life upside down is a brilliantly staged set-piece.
Comic antics from the Lam family provide a welcome counterpoint to the increasingly tragic story, although winningly it is their expertise in ghostly goings on that helps solve the mystery. Excellent performances from Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung, almost unrecognisable as the feuding teenage siblings in House of Fury (2005), especially during their rooftop scene wherein shy Lam confesses her love, but only in English so Lau won’t understand. After a fantastically tense final showdown, the conclusion strikes the right melancholy balance between heartbreak and hope.