Melbourne may be eerily quiet right now, but she comes to vibrant life in brilliant SBS drama Hungry Ghosts. Directed by Shawn Seet (Deep Water), the four-part supernatural epic centres on the city’s vibrant Vietnamese-Australian community and was filmed during last year’s Hungry Ghost Festival, a Taoist and Buddhist tradition that venerates the dead. Catherine Văn-Davies shines as May Le, a young woman whose life is upended as she finds herself facing down a vengeful spirit unleashed (thankfully she still finds time for a bit of ‘will they, won’t they’ romance with Ryan Corr’s spectrally haunted doctor).
Victoria’s shuttered capital is arguably just as big a star. Co-producer Stephen Corvini (Safe Harbour) hopes the series’ debut will help residents celebrate their city from their living rooms. “It’s obviously sad to see a city as vital and creative and vibrant as Melbourne shut up shop. It’s an astonishing place full of great surprises.”
While he was eager for viewers to get an early look at the show, he’s glad SBS held off until the eve of the festival itself, so we can all come together with Vietnamese-Australians. And goodness does Melbourne look good. Shot by cinematographer and lighting director Bruce Young, the show’s aglow with red, green and gold, featuring some of the richest visuals you’ll see on Australian TV.
“There’s a beautiful romanticism in the way that we shot it,” Corvini agrees, noting they took cues from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. He also lavishes praise on the keen eyes of location manager Nicci Dillon and her co-ordinator Marcia Robinson. Much of Hungry Ghosts was shot in Melbourne’s west, around the bustling multicultural hub of Footscray, home to a significant Vietnamese-Australian population.
You’ll spot plenty of the suburb’s vibrant strips, rumbling tram lines and cobbled laneways. The throng of Footscray Market features heavily. “It’s big and rambling, with most of the stallholders being Vietnamese, and it’s packed with incredible fresh produce,” Corvini says. “You’ll get great pig heads on hooks and it’s sort of like staring into Dante’s Inferno, so it’s very visceral.”
Perfect stalking territory, then, for powerful sorcerer Quang, the baleful force scrabbling to secure a foothold in the land of the living, who rather rudely possesses several key characters. Fighting back as she begins to understand her power, May Le finds herself exploring liminal spaces trapped between worlds, including a seemingly ordinary kitchen shot at Bo De Trai restaurant on Hopkins Street.
The nearby bayside suburb of Williamstown, with very different colonial architecture, also pops up. “On the surface, it almost looks like an old seaside town in England,” Corvini says. It’s where we meet former photojournalist Neil, played by Bryan Brown, and his daughter Liz (Clare Bowen), in his remarkable pad. “It’s a former bluestone pub built in the 1860s that’s now a private home,” Corvini says. “It was absolutely extraordinary in terms of the richness of surfaces.”
A nearby pier plays host to several key scenes, including the dramatic finale. Unluckily for Văn-Davies and several of her co-stars, they were plunged into the icy chill of Port Phillip Bay in midwinter. “They had wetsuits under their clothes, but it was still so cold that one of the actors was vomiting from the effects,” Corvini reveals. “We had a heated tent for them when they got out, and obviously we looked after them very well, but nonetheless, it really pushed the boundaries.”
The Nguyen family are a big part of the drama. An intergenerational household, veterans Ferdinand Hoang and Gabrielle Chan play the grandparents marked by tragedy during the Vietnam War. “They’ve been around for years, but usually show up in smaller roles, whereas Hungry Ghosts gives them very substantial parts,” Corvini says.
They live in a remarkable contemporary home with a lush bamboo garden located in the southside suburb of Elsternwick, across the Bay. “We wanted to show that a lot of people from a Vietnamese background have been very prosperous in Australia, and that isn’t often depicted,” Corvini says.
The garden is the site of several ghostly visitations. “Those images are very striking and I think they’ll be a hallmark of the show.”
The leafy beer garden of The Railway Hotel in Fitzroy North also makes a mark, standing in for some flashback scenes set in Vietnam. “The art department did an extraordinary job,” Corvini says. “It was just so beautifully authentic.”
The production was also lucky to locate a real Buddhist monk who was not only willing to perform chilling exorcism scenes, he also let them shoot in his temple in Fawkner, further north. The town of Mount Cottrell, out west beyond the city limits, stood in for scenes set during the war. “They’ve got a couple of tanks there, so we dressed it up and I think it’s incredibly plausible.”
But sadly for Melburnians who want to retrace the steps of Hungry Ghosts – 5km radius-allowing, of course – the crew had to look a little further afield for jungle scenes. Inspired by Radha Mitchell vehicle Celeste, they headed to the crumbling grandeur of Spanish folly Paronella Park in Queensland, currently locked to Victorians.
For now, viewers in Melbourne and across Australia can marvel at the city’s magnificent hot-spots, and the incredible performances from a stellar cast of more than 30 Asian-Australian actors. As for newer faces like Suzy Wrong, Oakley Kwon and the remarkable Văn-Davies, Corvini sees a bright future ahead once Melbourne’s local production kicks in again. “I think we’re gonna get some absolute stars out of this.”
Hungry Ghosts premieres over four nights at 9.30pm from Monday 24 August to Thursday 27 August on SBS. Episodes will be available at SBS On Demand each night at the same time as broadcast. The series will also be available with Simplified Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese subtitles at SBS On Demand. Watch episode 1 now:
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