THE HOUSE THAT NEVER DIES II (2017) review

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Three years after Raymond Yip’s The House that never dies became the highest-grossing Chinese horror film, comes this Gordon Chan-produced sequel, featuring a different cast and a new set of characters, but still taking place at N°81 Chanoei in Beijing, a famous mansion believed to be haunted. This time, engineer Song Teng (Julian Cheung) is working on restoring the old mansion, while neglecting his wife He (Mei Ting), a doctor. The couple has grown estranged following the stillbirth of their child five years before, and Song’s apparent reciprocal fondness for his assistant (Gillian Chung) isn’t helping matters. In an attempt to solidify their marriage, He moves in with her husband in the old house, but soon she is plagued by visions and nightmares, that appear to be memories of a past life: at the beginning of the 20th century, a general (Julian Cheung) who lived in this mansion had to marry the daughter (Gillian Chung) of a warlord, to solidify an alliance and to ensure he would have an heir, after his first wife (Mei Ting) failed to beget him one. But the general’s affections were still for his first wife, and his new bride proved barren as well. And deadly jealous.

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LOST MINDS (2016) short review

p2405533776Lynn Chen’s Lost Minds follows a couple (Jian RenZi and Andrew Lin) who has been unsuccessfully trying to have a child for a few years, and decides to resort to an old Chinese fertility ritual, that of the “primer”: to temporarily adopt a child, who will open the way for their own progeny. They adopt a quiet 7-year-old girl (Wang Yifei) at an orphanage whose supervisors (Hui Shiu Hung and Pat Ha) are obviously not telling them everything. The adopted child is silent, asocial and constantly draws disturbingly dark pictures of her previous family. It doesn’t help that her new mother is beset with strange visions that threaten her sanity. Like so many mediocre horror films, Lost Minds uses a lead character’s vacillating sanity as an excuse to bombard the audience with nightmare sequences and jump-scare visions that thus don’t need to be justified by the story (since, you know, the character’s sanity is vacillating). There are a few passable red herrings until the final twist – a demystifying one as always in China’s supernatural-free horror genre – brings the film to a thudding close, with belabored exposition and flashbacks, to make sure everyone understands the denouement. Very little tension and virtually no scares are mustered, though the unsettling white glow of the cinematography is rather effective and well-judged, and Jian RenZi’s performance is fairly affecting, while Wang Yifei is an excellent child actress whose alternating creepiness and cuteness are never forced. Andrew Lin sleepwalks through the film, Hui Shiu Hung is wasted in a rare serious role, and the great Pat Ha valiantly makes the best of her poorly-written role. *1/2

THE APOSTLES (2014) short review

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Joe Chien’s The Apostles tells of Lu Yun (Josie Ho), a novelist who after a car accident has been suffering from nightmares and short-term memory loss. After her husband dies in plane crash, she is contacted by Hab Bin (Xia Fan), a man whose girlfriend also died in that crash, and who found a cellphone belonging to Lu Yun’s husband in her remains. Realizing their respective partners were having an affair and were planning to go to a mysterious desolate town called X, Lu Yun and Hab Bin decide to head for that town in search of answers. Mixing elements from the Silent Hill games and films (a haunting phantom town), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (investigating a spouse’s death while coping with memory loss) and Sidney Pollack’s Random Hearts (a man and a woman brought together by the infidelity and tragic death of their respective spouses), The Apostles starts out in fairly derivative fashion, but nevertheless manages to gather tension and atmosphere, especially thanks to effective and haunting nightmare sequences, unsettling situations and the excellent Josie Ho’s affecting performance. Then just as it seems the film is fading out into the usual cognitive shortcuts (show mysterious images then explain them away as figments of the lead character’s imagination), it starts unraveling a final revelation so narratively and visually bold that it deserves quite a bit of admiration. For in daring to so strikingly and assuredly jump the shark, The Apostles rises well above most of Chinese horror. ***

HORRIBLE MANSION IN WILD VILLAGE (2016) short review

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Horrible Mansion in Wild Village (with “Mansion” spelled as “Masion” in posters and credits), is a shockingly amateurish little horror film in which a reckless young biker (Cai Juntao) has an accident and ends up seeking help in a decrepit old mansion inhabited by a little girl (Jia Lin) and her stern grandmother (Kara Hui). And a terrifying and mysterious horned creature. And a mute girl locked up in the attic. From this familiar but decent premise, director Lu Shiyu makes his film an endless – though only 80 minutes long – series of shrieky nightmare sequences (the main character wakes up with a jolt roughly once every two minutes), ham-fisted flashbacks and trite stalking scenes. The mansion set is effective (though you can easily picture the director yelling “more cobwebs! I want more cobwebs!”) and Kara Hui, who has probably never phoned in a single performance in her career (more than 150 films), is suitably creepy, but the laughable and repetitive script keeps tension low, and resorts to the mother of all lame twists in order to make its overt supernatural elements palatable to Chinese censorship. Mainland Chinese horror has no high points yet, but it does have a new low point. 1/2*

THE PRECIPICE GAME (2016) review

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Mainland Chinese horror consists mainly of ghost stories that end with rational twists in order to avoid the SARFT‘s censorship of supernatural elements, which makes Wang Zao’s The Precipice Game an exception: it’s a straightforward slasher with Saw overtones, and no fake ghosts in sight. It stars Ruby Lin as Chen Chen, a surgeon whose wealthy mother (Wang Ji) is a control freak who disapproves of most of her relationships. One day her current boyfriend Chuan (Kingscar Jin) offers to take her on a treasure-hunt aboard a massive cruise ship, with only a select few other players (Peter Ho, Gai Yuexi, Li Lin and Li Shangyi). Things start off weird, with an oddly elaborate game of life-sized but harmless Russian roulette, before taking a turn for the horrific, as players are killed one by one in a series of inventively sadistic traps.

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HELP (2007) short review

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A young doctorate student in psychology (Song Jia) is angling for a prized position as assistant to a renowned expert in the field. Feeling that her classmate (Asiru) may be the one chosen for the job, she has sex with her teacher – who’s in charge of choosing the assistant – in exchange for the position. When her boyfriend (Zhu Hongjia) realizes what she’s done, they get into a heated argument, during which he slips and falls headfirst on the corner of a table. Thinking he’s dead and fearing she might be accused of having killed him, she calls her teacher and begs him to help her dispose of the body. Soon thereafter she’s starts being plagued by mysterious sleepwalking episodes and visions of her dead boyfriend. Originality, fear or surprise are not to be found in this languid little horror film, which laudably never resorts to jump scares, but nevertheless unfolds in an entirely predictable way, down to the exposition-heavy finale and debunking of what initially looked like paranormal instances. This is, after all, a Mainland Chinese horror film. One keeps hoping some Chinese director will one day find a clever way to get around the SARFT‘s censorship of supernatural elements, but Zhang Qi (who later helmed the equally contrived The Devil Inside Me) isn’t the chosen one. He does know how to conjure creeping dread, but that dread never goes anywhere compelling, wasting Song Jia’s subtle, affecting performance. *1/2

PHANTOM OF THE THEATRE (2016) review

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With Phantom of the Theatre, director Raymond Yip continues his recent streak of horror films that also includes Blood-Stained Shoes (2012), The House that Never Dies (2014) and Tales of Mystery (2015). Set in Shanghai during the 1930s, it unfolds in and around an abandoned theatre that is said to be haunted by the ghosts of an acrobatic troupe that was killed in a fire 13 years before. In comes Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) a young film director with plans to shoot a romantic ghost story in this very theatre; after a chance encounter with up-and-coming actress Meng Sifan (Ruby Lin), he offers her the lead role in his film and she accepts. But on the very first day of shooting in the theatre, the film’s lead actor dies horribly, mysteriously burnt from inside. Soon, one of the film’s investors meets the same fate, just as a strange cloaked figure is seen stalking the playhouse’s corridors. Despite all this, Gu Weibang – who has replaced the lead actor and is developing requited feelings for his co-star – keeps shooting his film, under the disapproving eye of his father, warlord Gu Mingshan (Simon Yam).

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THE INCREDIBLE TRUTH (2013) short review

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Wei Ling (Christy Chung) is the friend and make-up artist of starlet Jia Jia (Ada Liu Yan), who recently left for Japan to visit her boyfriend Hirato (Ikki Funaki) but has ceased all communications. Despite going through a traumatic experience in Japan a year before, Wei Ling decides to go look for Jia Jia, and follows her trace to a forest inn owned by Hirota’s family. There, she hits a wal as everyone says they’ve never seen Jia Jia, but the inn staff’s hostility,  Hirota’s distraught behavior, and frequent visions of her friend tell her another story. Sam Leung’s The Incredible Truth has pleasingly garish cinematography, a reasonably intriguing start, and the welcome sight of Christy Chung in a lead role – looking not a day older than in her late-nineties heyday – as well as watchable supporting turns by Ada Liu and a distinguished Japanese cast. But is all too eager to check a laundry list of horror-mystery clichés (including the heroic duo of lazy mystery plot devices: visions of the disappeared one, and a detailed diary left behind), and relies too much on weird behavior – get ready for a LOT of lurid smiles – and an almost comical, quickly grating amount of jump scares. And it wraps its plot up with one of the laziest twists in recent memory, basically bringing a whole new, never-yet-mentioned character in the story in a desperate attempt at surprising the viewer. *1/2

THE STRANGE HOUSE (2015) short review

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Danny Pang’s sixth film not to be co-directed by his brother Oxide (though only his third without any official involvement whatsoever from the latter), The Strange House slipped completely under the radar in its summer 2015 China release. The set-up is reasonably interesting: Ye Zi (Xu Jiao) is a young hairdresser with money problems. Just as she is threatened with eviction, she is approached by Le Zijun (Cheung Siu Fai), a psychologist who makes her a strange offer: his mother is in the throes of death, and all her family is with her except one, Le Rong, who died a year ago and to whom Ye Zi bears a striking resemblance. Everyone kept Le Rong’s death a secret from the matriarch, fearing the tragic news would precipitate her illness, but now in her final days she’s asking for her granddaughter. Thus for a generous sum of money, Ye Zi is to impersonate Le Rong and bring closure to the dying woman. She accepts, but once in the family house she’s faced with bizarre hostility from the rest of the family, and plagued with visions of a dead boy. After an interesting and fairly unsettling start, and despite nicely ambiguous performances from Xu Jiao and Cheung Siu Fai, The Strange House quickly devolves into the usual broth of jump scares, belabored exposition (has a person ever died mysteriously without leaving a detailed diary behind?) and censorship placating: the SARFT‘s “no supernatural elements” rule means the film ends with the same old twist generally used in Mainland Chinese horror to justify the apparent presence of ghosts. To its credit, the film does add a clever narrative and visual footnote to this twist, as if to compensate for how derivative and contrived it is. **

DAUGHTER (2015) short review

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Chan Pang Chun’s Daughter is that rare Hong Kong horror film that features a Catholic – rather than Taoist – exorcism. It stars Kara Hui as Sharon, a successful psychologist who’s raising her teenage daughter Jenny (Yanny Chan) alone, but has been neglecting her for a while, all the while being a control freak when it comes to her future. But as the usually despondent Jenny starts acting increasingly defiant and strange, Sharon herself is plagued with horrific nightly visions, and she decides to call on the help of a priest (Kenny Wong). Daughter seems to have been helmed by two different directors: one who lets the dread sink in, favors creepy wide angle shots over close-up jump scares, and relies on Kara Hui’s intense and affecting performance rather than on CGI demon faces; and another who soon gets the upper hand, and who seems more concerned with regurgitating every single cliché linked to the subgenre of exorcism films, culling especially from William Friedkin’s seminal 1973 film. Beds will quake, innocent girls will talk in a demonic voice, pea soup will be vomited, priests will be flung across the room by unseen forces, and so on. You know the drill. There’s a half-decent twist at the end, but even at 80 minutes the film feels interminable. **