China, 2010, colour, 1.85:1, 87 mins.
Director: Zhang Jiabei 张加贝.
Okay hospital horror boasts good technique but is let down by a weak script.
Haibei municipality, Qinghai province, China, the present day. In Haibei People’s Hospital, on the night of a full moon, an elderly female patient is murdered in Room 314 by a syringe through her chest. The hospital’s heart surgeon Gu Zhensheng (Ren Dahua) is called in, and the incident adds further strain to him, having recently lost his wife Xia Xue (Liu Yuxin) from a terminal illness. Ever since, Gu Zhensheng has been suffering from nightmares that have affected his work, and Xia Xue’s younger sister, Xia Xiaoyu (Yang Yuyu), who is a nurse at the hospital, has also been emotionally disturbed. Meanwhile, Wen Miao (Li Nian), the daughter of hospital director Wen (Li Zhaomin), is due for an operation for a weak heart. She’s the fiancee of Mai Xiangyu (Wu Zhenyu), the hospital’s psychologist, who has become the target of a hate campaign by his former girlfriend Wu Xinyao (Yao Di), who also works as a nurse at the same hospital. Wu Xinyao can’t forgive him for dumping her, and threatens to show his fiancee old photos of them making love. One September night, Wu Xinyao is murdered in the same way as the old female patient. Gu Zhensheng tells hospital director Wen that Mai Xiangyu has been acting strangely lately, and Mai Xiangyu also tells him the same thing about Gu Zhensheng.
Billing itself as China’s first real horror movie – and flirting extremely closely with the Mainland prohibition on supernatural, ghostly elements – the moderately budgeted Midnight Beating 午夜心跳 performed creditably [RMB31 million] against end-of-the-year  big guns like Let the Bullets Fly 让子弹飞 [RMB654 million] and If You Are the One II 非诚勿扰II [RMB472 million] on the back of publicity about having to be re-edited to pass censorship and the presence of two Hong Kong stars, Ren Dahua 任达华 [Simon Yam] and Wu Zhenyu 吴镇宇 [Francis Ng]. In the limited canon of Mainland horror movies – which includes Curse of Lola 诅咒 (2005, Li Hong 李虹), also starring Wu, and The Door 门 (2007, Li Shaohong 李少红) – it’s an honourable attempt at Asian psycho-horror. But much more could have been expected with a director of the calibre of Zhang Jiabei (Cherries 樱桃, 2007; Dreaming Wall 梦墙, 2010) at the helm.
Zhang, who studied and worked in Japan, again uses Dreaming Wall d.p. Nakazawa Masayuki 中泽正行 , whose cold, wintry colours and precise compositions bring a chill to the interiors – almost the entire film is set in an old-fashioned hospital – and which are complemented by the creepy-crawly, musique concrète score (plucked strings etc.) of Yasuda Fumio 安田芙允央 and a soundtrack that’s all creaking doors and ghostly swishes. On a technical level, the movie passes muster as a spooky mystery-horror. The main problem is the script, which is basically a series of red herrings leading up to a simple, thinly-grounded explanation, and the needlesly involved editing, which seems designed simply to confuse the viewer while adding some superficial suspense. Mainland film-makers have yet to crack the psycho-horror code in the way that other Northeast Asian countries (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong) and some Southeast Asian ones have.
Ren and Wu perform OK but without much conviction. Among the multiple actresses, Yao Di 姚笛 (The Love of Three Smile: Scholar and the Beauty 三笑之才子佳人, 2010) has the juiciest role as a vengeful bitch, with Li Nian 李念 (the down-to-earth Yuefen in Six Sisters in the War 沂蒙六姐妹, 2009) scoring more discreet points as the sister-in-law of Ren’s character. The Chinese title literally means “Midnight Heartbeat”.
Presented by Beijing Dadu Sunshine Film & TV Production (CN), Sichuan Tenglong Film (CN).
Script: Zhao Ben. Original story: Yu Chuansong. Photography: Nakazawa Masayuki. Editing: Jia Cuiping. Music: Yasuda Fumio. Art direction: Li Chuanyong. Sound: Yu Qiang.
Cast: Ren Dahua [Simon Yam] (Gu Zhensheng, doctor), Wu Zhenyu [Francis Ng] (Mai Xiangyu, doctor), Yang Yuyu (Xia Xiaoyu), Yao Di (Wu Xinyao, nurse), Li Nian (Wen Miao, Mai Xiangyu’s fiancee), Liu Yuxin (Xia Xue, Gu Zhensheng’s late wife), Ba Duo (Hong, mortuary attendant), Yang Shuting (Lin Xiang), Li Zhaomin (Wen, hospital director), Zhang Feng (Liu Dahua), Zhao Yi (Tao Zhenyu), Guo Wei, Wang Yiqun, Peng Naqi, Gao Ming, Yao Xinyue, Tian Meizhu, Zhang Nasi, Xu Yingping.
Release: China, 24 Dec 2010.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 7 Jul 2011.)