Dr. Xu Ruining (Xu Zheng) is a highly-regarded practitioner of hypnotherapy, a science that yields surprisingly effective results but also a bit of controversy due to its blurry ethical boundaries : indeed, matters of free will are made a bit blurry when one enters the alternative state of hypnosis. This doesn’t stop Xu from being a supremely confident, resolutely arrogant master of his craft, and he is quick to take up the challenge when a colleague asks for his help in curing a seemingly untreatable patient : a woman (Karen Mok) who’s been abandoned by her parents and by her foster parents, and now claims to see dead people. She shows up at his office one evening, and a psychological game of cat and mouse ensues as it becomes apparent she’s not the only one to have secrets. Initially dismissive of any supernatural explanation, Dr. Xu soon has the tables turned on himself, as the woman claims that two ghosts are present in the room, and starts telling him things about himself he thought no one else knew.
There’s a paradoxically refreshing theatricality to Leste Chen’s The Great Hypnotist : for most of its runtime, the film takes place in the doctor’s cabinet, only escaping its confines during the several hypnosis-induced dreams and memories. While such a set-up can easily make a film feel stuffy, static and/or unfit for the big screen, the film cleverly escapes those trappings thanks to stylish set design, polished photography and more importantly, an interesting match-up of two actors from different backgrounds, whose confrontation sparkles both enjoyably and affectingly. Xu Zheng is firmly in his wheelhouse as this is far from his first time playing a cocksure prick slowly revealing his more human and vulnerable side. It has been reproached to him that he makes his character so insufferable from the outset that it’s hard to care for him even when he unravels and his secrets are exposed. But we might counter that the thick shell of arrogance he wears at first, is not just a character trait, it’s also integral to the film’s ultimate reveal, and so the accent Xu puts on his character’s vanity is actually instrumental to the mystery’s proper unraveling. Facing him, Karen Mok is superbly compelling, playing on varied registers – endearing fragility, seductive confidence, steely resolve – and it makes us wish she’d take on dramatic material more often.
However, strong visuals and excellent acting are not enough to cover a few key shortcomings. One, despite the interesting theatrical dimension, the story is both in its initial set-up and in its ensuing reveals, a retread of other films, both western and eastern. Of course M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense comes to mind, but also Law Chi Leung’s Inner Senses, two name but two. It wouldn’t be such a problem – influences, even close ones, are part of the game, and The Great Hypnotist doesn’t plagiarize any film per se – if the plot was airtight ; quality can exist without originality. But it is not airtight, and its reveals require so much suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, they stretch the real-world tenets and potentiality of hypnosis so much, that it is hard to be convinced, even on a purely emotional level. It doesn’t help that the film ends with an explanatory summary that, by making the whole plot and reveals crystal-clear to the audience, not only strips the film of any margin for interpretation (and thus of any remaining mystery), but also unwittingly points out to some inconsistencies we might have missed. In the end, The Great Hypnotist is handsome and engaging, but doesn’t bear close scrutiny.
Long Story Short : Though derivative and sometimes unconvincing, The Great Hypnotist is kept afloat by its sense of style and the classy double-act of Karen Mok and Xu Zheng. ***