Actor Michael Imperioli makes his directorial debut with the IFFR opening film the hungry ghosts, a dark and darkly comic tale of five intersecting, aimless lives in NewYork.
"Let me finish the story," twentysomething Nadia implores the friend who has offered her a bed for the night. "It all ties together." This conversation takes place in the hungry ghosts, Michael Imperioli’s debut as a writer and director for the big screen, and Nadia might as well be reassuring the audience: this group of stories will, indeed, all tie together at the end.
The film’s title refers to the concept of the hungry ghost, variations on which can be found in many Eastern religions: endlessly scavenging creatures being punished for the greed and gluttony in their previous lives. Although they have not yet died literally, Imperioli’s main characters have all left parts of their lives behind them, without a clear idea of what should come next. There is Nadia (Aunjanue Ellis), dragging her life around in two big bags without a destination. There is overweight radio presenter Frank (Steven R. Schirripa), nursing an escalating drug habit while attempting to rebuild his relationship with teenage son Matthew (Emory Cohen) and ex-wife Sharon (Sharon Angela). And then there is alcoholic Gus (Nick Sandow), returning to freedom after a three-month stint of rehab which did him no good whatsoever, judging by his immediate attempt to trade in his 90-day-sobriety chip for a beer. Aimlessly they go through the motions on the streets of Manhattan, their lives crisscrossing during a 36-hour period, their unfinished pasts and destructive present unavoidably catching up with them.
For a slight moment at the beginning of the hungry ghosts it feels as though we have ended up in an episode of ‘The Sopranos’, the gangster tv-series that brought Michael Imperioli fame as an actor. We find ourselves in a seedy gambling hall, the opening credits intercut with flashes of the ongoing debauchery: alcohol and gambling, topless dancers, drugs being taken in the bathroom. On top of this, we open on Steven Schirripa, losing all his bets, looking every bit as dejected as his iconic Sopranos character Bobby ‘Bacala’. But then he gets thrown out of this den of inequity because the owner does not allow swearing, and we realize we are in decidedly more offbeat territory.
The film gets weirder from there, fusing Eastern philosophies and Western decadence, and it is to the credit of Imperioli and his cast that the main characters never feel less than real — although the smaller parts can verge on the cartoonesk. It gets darker, too, with subjects ranging from random street violence to a suicide attempt, but a streak of dark humor shines through the misery. Indeed, while his camerawork rarely rises above the adequate (though never falling below it, either), it is in his writing and the direction of his actors that Imperioli shows the greatest promise.