Gong Xi Fa Cai/Gong Hey Fat Choy to you all. I wasn’t planning to blog for a bit, but then I found this Chinese Ghost story from back in 2007 that had a suitably pan-Chinese cast that felt a good fit for this time of year. Actually, I have no idea how I had never even heard of it before. Usually that doesn’t mean good things for a film, but sometimes there’s a hidden gem hiding behind the sofa right? So without further ado, let’s transport ourselves back to 1930’s Shanghai…
As Teng Hua-tao’s “The Matrimony” opens we see the sad fate of radio announcer Man-li (Fan Bing Bing). Rushing to meet her boyfriend Jun-chu (Leon Lai), she is killed in front of him in a car accident. We then move forward a year, and find Jun-chu now married to San-san (Rene Liu), although it is very much a marriage against his wishes, basically he has done this to acquiesce to appease his Mother. He barely acknowledges his young wife, although her own love for him is quite genuine. San-san is further troubled by strange noises in the large family mansion, and even though she warned off investigating by the Maid, Rong-ma (Xu Song-zi), she eventually is led to an attic room, containing what amounts to a shrine to Man-li. A small crisis hits this dysfunctional family, and San-san is eventually approached by the ghost of Man-li. The ghost offers to help San-san to both fix this crisis and help her get closer to Jun-chu, by allowing her to be possessed by the spirit. Of course, one should never trust a Ghost, and Man-li proves to be as untrustworthy in her intentions as you might have guessed. Can San-san overcome both the evil intentions of the afterlife, and truly win her husband’s heart?
As I said in the opening, I am really not sure how I missed this one. And there is a lot going for it. Production values are top notch, this is a brilliant evocation of 1930’s Shanghai, the sets and the costuming look amazing. The story too is interesting, even if it is quite obviously inspired by Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca“. But that in itself isn’t a bad inspiration, and actually works quite well with the Melting-Pot of East meets West of Shanghai in this period of history.
The cast are pretty good, Hong Kong’s Leon Lai isn’t my favorite “Heavenly King of Cantopop”, and his character is a little too mopey for anyone to truly love, but he is watchable enough. Taiwan’s Rene Liu fares better (even if she’s actually twice the age of the character she is playing), but you at least feel empathy for her and care for her fate. The big surprise is the Mainland Fan Bing BIng, who is usually little more than stunningly beautiful window dressing. Here she is both adorable and quite scary. Actually, I have never seen her look lovelier, but there is a range to her limited acting skills her that has rarely been offered up since.
The special effects are pretty well done. Mostly. The problem is that the very early accident scene is marred by one of the worst bits of CGI I have seen on film for a long time. It’s terrible, and nearly makes you want to stop watching the film about two minutes in. Fortunately things improve hugely after this point, but this initial lack of care certainly knocks points off. There is also some nice use of both Movie and Radio that actually add to the overall story.
And then there is the Ending. Basically (and without wanting to spoil things), we are taken back to the opening scene, and it is suggested to us that all that has gone before is nothing more than a story, and in a “Closing Doors” moment of changed fates, things actually turned out quite differently. Now, my suspicion this is more to do with Mainland Censorship (that there cannot actually be Ghosts) rather than some kind of artistic device. It really takes away the power of the sacrifices of the conclusion of the film proper, and makes you feel a little like you have just wasted the previous 80 minutes.
It is definitely more a Ghost story than a horror flick (despite what vibe you might get from the poster, and the Asia Extreme label on the Western DVD release), there are a number of bumps and jumps, but really this a film about unrequited and lost loves. The mood is great, and at a tight sub-90 minutes, it manages to maintain it’s objective over the full running time. If it wasn’t for one shabby special effect shot, and the frustrating cop-out of an ending, I would have marked this one much higher. But I think for mood and style alone this one can get a charitable Recommended.