Hungry Ghosts is a four-part series that’s a wild mesh of horror, thriller, supernatural, romance and war history that was made primarily in Melbourne’s inner western suburbs with a homegrown cast and large support team that comprises an unprecedented number of Asian-Australian actors (more than 30) and extras* (300 plus). Creating a TV program always and necessarily demands a collaborative effort but this production makes a point of listening to the lived-in experience of its Vietnamese actors and writers in terms of storytelling, and is all the better for it.
Set in contemporary times in Melbourne, the series explores three generations of Vietnamese-Australian diaspora families, some of whom were traumatised by past experiences of the Vietnam war. It begins on the eve of the Hungry Ghost Festival, a tradition in the 7th month of the Lunar calendar when the gates of hell are open and dormant ghosts are able to leave the netherworld to wander the earth in search of food and mischief as well as revenge. They are more likely to be maleficent rather than benevolent spirits, as many are thought to have been denied a proper burial and therefore remain lost souls. Hence, shrines are set up in the Buddhist and Taoist communities, with prayers, food and other offerings to deceased relatives during this time to venerate and appease them.
Audiences have long been prepared for the outcome that no good will eventuate from a disturbed resting place for the dead (hello Mummy franchise!) and so it comes as little surprise that when a tomb in Vietnam is accidentally opened on the eve of the Festival, a particularly vengeful and shape-changing spirit is unleashed and the lives of three families: the Le, Tran, and Nguyen clans, as well as the Anglo-Australian Stocktons, are affected. There’s a mix of Asian and Anglo faces, including Jillian Nguyen (creepily possessed!), Oakley Kwon, Ferdinand Hoang, and Susan Ling Young, as well as Bryan Brown and Clare Bowen playing father and daughter photographers, and Susie Porter, Justine Clarke and Ryan Corr.
With such a sprawling cast, it takes a while for the twisty narrative and intra-related dynamics of the characters to unfold but at the centre is May Le (Catherine Van-Davies). Alongside bestie Roxy (Suzy Wrong) who also happens to be a clairvoyant and a trans woman (much is made of the former but not the latter), May Le is the nexus point between the living and the dead, the real and the imaginary, the rational and the spiritual.
It’s refreshing to see Asian women leads portrayed in strong, central roles not sexualised as demure eye candy or marginalised as ‘second waitress in cheongsam’
It’s refreshing to see Asian women leads portrayed in strong, central roles not sexualised as demure eye candy or marginalised as ‘second waitress in cheongsam’, and Van-Davies is a protagonist who demands attention; she’s the thread in the narrative that pulls all the disparate stories together. There’s a collision of past and present as she and sidekick Wrong chase and investigate the haunting spectres around the community. (The horror aspect is relatively mild, though there are some startling moments.)
Taking in the fall of Saigon and the scrabble thereafter, the refugee boat experience and the second and third generation of Vietnamese making their way in Australia, Hungry Ghosts also deals sensitively with a number of themes: how do we grapple with mistakes, lies and trauma in the past? Is there such a thing as generational guilt and how can there be atonement? Can ghosts be exorcised and erased from memory or should they be accepted as being part of our collective history? An interesting strand is Brown’s role as a photographer who’s about to have a retrospective of his work from war-time Vietnam. Brown does his best tormented schtick as he wonders whether his art helped or exploited the miseries he documented and indeed, whether they were even his stories to tell.
Directed by Shawn Seet and with writers Timothy Hobart and John Ridley, Michele Lee, Alan Nguyen, Jeremy Nguyen and Hoa Pham, the series is an ambitious feat that brings together much needed new Asian talent across the acting and writing spheres. It’s evocative, thought-provoking and at times, plaintive and moving: a reminder of the reverberating effects of war over time and space. Hungry Ghosts is a trailblazer of a series. It assembles a large group of Asian-Australian writers and actors together with a multi-layered story. It may deal specifically with the Vietnamese experience but its themes of vengeance and forgiveness cross borders of race and identity and it will resonate with anyone who’s ever grappled with trauma in the past.
Written by Jeremy Nguyen, John Ridley, Alan Nguyen, Timothy Hobart, Michelle Lee
Directed by Shawn Seet
Produced by Timothy Hobart, Stephen Corvini
Hungry Ghosts screens on SBS (4 episodes starting from 24 – 27 August at 9.30pm) and is also available via SBS On Demand:.
*Thuy On was an extra on this series but does not appear in the final cut.