When insurance broker Yip Wing-shun (Carlos Chan) discovers the body of the stepson of his client Chu Chung-tak (Anthony Wong) at the latter’s house, he refuses to accept the police’s classification of the death as a suicide and launches his own investigation. As Yip increasingly begins to suspect that Chu was responsible for his stepson’s death to claim the latter’s insurance money, he starts to grow concerned that Chu’s next target is his visually-impaired wife Shum Tsz-ling (Kar Yan Lam). However, as Yip’s investigation unfolds, he soon finds out that things are not always as they seem.

Director Yuen intentionally harkens back to the glory days of the Category III film subgenre of the late-80s and early-90s, which flooded Hong Kong with an array of low-budget films specialising in graphic sex and/or even more graphic violence. While Yuen blunts the latter somewhat in this film, the influences of the controversial subgenre can clearly be seen in sequences such as Chu’s supposed torture of an unfortunate victim, whose charred corpse is later shown to Yip in graphic detail, and a later sequence involving intimidation through the murder of one of the cats belong to Yip’s girlfriend. The parallels are also reflected in the casting of Category III veteran Wong in the role of Chu, which at first appears to complement his role as a serial killer in the notorious film The Untold Story.

Wong himself provides an eerily convincing performance as the mentally impaired Chu, effectively conveying both his initial menace as well as his instability without resorting to overacting. In addition, Lam gets across both Shum’s initially fragile nature as the result of her disabilities and her later true persona with equal conviction, which helps to prevent the climax from feeling totally implausible. The one weak link in the cast is Chan, who comes across as bland in his portrayal of Yip, never fully expressing the character’s guilt over the death of his brother, or his determination to uncover the truth behind the death of Chu and Shum’s son.

Yuen impresses in his stylised approach, blending flashbacks seamlessly with present-day events and having characters from both sequences interact with each other indirectly. A similarly innovative approach can be seen in his realisation of the film’s recurring motif of the Ghost Mantis, showing the insect’s legs enveloping Yip’s girlfriend in a nightmare. Yuen also has a talent not only the requisite depiction of graphic violence expected of the genre but also the extended tension required of the more low-key sequences. For all the blood and gore, it’s the sequences in which Chu stalks Yip at his office and his home that are the most unsettling.

However, the loose plotting of the script sadly lets the film down, with the motif of the Ghost Mantis – which conceals its true nature by appearing harmless – only serving to clumsily foreshadow the third act plot twist. The inclusion of the psychology professor mentor of Yip’s girlfriend into the narrative also clumsily foregrounds a plot element concerning the criminal mind. The professor himself also becomes inexplicably involved with Yip’s case seemingly so that Chu can claim a victim that is not Yip or his girlfriend. Finally, the climax heavily hinges on the audience being willing to suspend their disbelief regarding physical strength, with Yip coming across as more disadvantaged than he appears to be for the sake of drawing out the sequence’s tension.

Legally Declared Dead works as an entertaining genre throwback that features stylistically-unique direction and mostly impressive performances. However, the inconsistent quality of the script and lead performance result in the film failing to fully achieve its true potential as a thriller.

Screened as part of Fantasia Festival