Don’t Open the Door
China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 89 mins.
Director: Zhou Ge 周阁.
Bizarrely structured Mainland horror starts conventionally but then goes its own way.
A township in Yunnan province, southern China, the present day, 13th of the month. Yang Hao (Qu Shaoshi), young boss of Wumiaohui Inn 舞妙汇客栈, invites six of his staff to dinner in one of the restaurant’s private rooms to meet his friend Peter (Li Henan), who’s just returned from abroad. Yang Hao has a mutually convenient sexual relationship with one of his waitresses, Naonao (Cao Lei), but is openly trying to seduce another, Xiaofei (Xu Li), who isn’t interested. Xiaofei is upset by the disappearance of a colleague, Penny (Liu Zhu), who hasn’t come to work for a month; the police have no leads so far. Also at the dinner are head cook Xianye (Zhao Hongji), his young assistants Fatty (Wang Chang) and Huazi (Yang Long), and manageress Liu Bingbing (Li Xinrui). Huazi and Xiaofei are childhood friends. The dinner goes awkwardly, with no one liking the offensive Peter, who retires early. Xiaofei drinks heavily to avoid the attentions of Yang Hao, who then has sex with Naonao in the toilets. Afterwards, Naonao visits private room A113 – which is supposedly haunted on the 13th of every month due to a tubby cook once hanging himself there – and is spooked by a young female ghost before being dragged into the wardrobe. Several of the staff have guilty secrets: Naonao once stole a colleague’s necklace, and Xianye, who knew Liu Bingbing was fiddling the books, helped himself to some cash as his share. When Fatty goes to the kitchen to get some more food, he’s spooked by some ghosts and ends up decapitating Xianye in a struggle. Liu Bingbing goes to get more wine from the storeroom and is also spooked by the young female ghost. Left alone at the table, Xiaofei drunkenly tells Huazi her visa for overseas study has come through but she’ll stay on in the restaurant job because she loves him; Huazi, who doesn’t want her to give up the chance to go overseas, says nothing – which she misinterprets.
For the first 25 minutes, Don’t Open the Door 别开门 looks like a very average Mainland horror made on a budget and rockily written and cast. As a lecherous restaurant boss invites his staff to dinner to welcome back his loathsome friend from abroad, the evening is clearly not going to end well, what with a haunted room in the restaurant complex, one staff member already gone missing, and lots of simmering dislike and talk of ghosts. But after two of the cast pop to the washrooms for some quick sex, the film suddenly pulls a totally unexpected effects shot as a prelude to going its own, increasingly bizarre way. Door is never more than genre fodder, but it deserves a mention for its sheer nerve.
Whether this first feature by writer-director Zhou Ge 周阁, who’s worked during the past decade in film, TV and theatre, portends greater things will remain to be seen. During its last hour, the film’s structure, whether by design or post-production necessity, is certainly bold, mixing forward narrative, flashbacks, revisitations of earlier scenes and lots of hauntings into a crazy stew, capped by a 20-minute coda that begins with the usual explanation scene – this being a Mainland horror, there has to be a rational reason for all the “ghostly” goings-on – but then moves the goalposts yet again. It all barely makes sense but is still watchable, with the film (until then, a spooky drama entirely set in an inn-restaurant) opening out in a very cinematic way.
Performances are variable. Top-billed Xu Li 徐立, 31, a TV actress who played a brothel madame in Brotherhood of Blades 绣春刀 (2014), comes into her own in the final section after a low-key role as a troubled waitress; but for most of the going it’s former child performer/VJ Cao Lei 曹雷, 35, who dominates the female side as a hot-to-trot colleague, followed by Li Xinrui 李昕芮, 26, a contract actress with Changchun Film Group, as the restaurant’s stern manageress. The male casting is more uneven: TV-theatre actor Qu Shaoshi 曲少石 looks too young for the role of the lecherous boss and TV’s Yang Long 杨珑 is colourless as the childhood friend of Xu’s character; only elder actor Zhao Hongji 赵洪纪 cuts much of a role as the chief cook.
Frequent use of direct sound is off-putting and emphasises the film’s budget feel. In the closing minutes, however, both photography and art direction finally bloom. Though the location of the story is never specified, the film was shot in touristy Dali, Yunnan province, southern China.
Presented by Beijing Hengjia Tiansheng Yingye (CN), Shanghai ReStyle Media (CN), Beijing Jinyi Qiankun Media (CN), Beijing Dongfang Meiri Media (CN), Beijing Xingyao Longfu (Internatioanl) Media (CN), Beijing Qingshanbulao Cultural Development (CN).
Script: Zhou Ge. Photography: Li Jun. Editing: Liu Qijun, Chen Qiumin. Music: Wu Bingchen. Song: Li Zhu. Vocals: Li Zhu. Production design: Ni Xiangjin. Art direction: Liu Yong. Styling: Niu Yue. Sound: Liang Xinpeng, Tang Yuanping, Liang Pan. Special effects: Wu Yu, Guo Ran. Visual effects: Wu Ning.
Cast: Xu Li (Xiaofei), Qu Shaoshi (Yang Hao), Yang Long (Huazi, young cook), Zhao Hongji (Xianye, head cook), Li Henan (Beng Deng/Peter James), Cao Lei (Naonao), Li Xinrui (Liu Bingbing, manageress), Wang Chang (Xiaopang/Fatty, young cook), Liu Jin (suicide cook), Liu Zhu (Penny), Chen Yu (suicide cook’s ex-wife).
Release: China, 13 May 2016.