The Lonely Spirit in an Old Building
China, 1989, colour, 1.85:1, 92 mins.
Directors: Liang Ming 梁明, Mu Deyuan 穆德远.
Key Mainland horror film from the late 1980s still has considerable atmosphere and invention.
Beijing, during the Cultural Revolution. A man visits a hospital with a 14-year-old girl, leaving her in the corridor while he sees a dying old man, the girl’s father (Wang Zhenrong). The father asks the man to take care of his daughter and then dies. Some time later, in a room where the young girl’s body is hanging by a noose from the ceiling, the man cleans up all traces of his presence, hangs some keys round the corpse’s neck, and leaves, slipping the bolt back behind him so the room is sealed from the inside. Over a decade later, the film 孤女 (“Orphan Girl”) is in production, starring well-known actress Yu Hong (Pan Jie) and directed by Zheng Lei (Han Xiaolei). For a scene of Yu Hong climbing some stairs, sound engineer Huo Feng (Chen Xiguang) asks permission to get a more atmospheric recording in the old building where he has a flat. The dilapidated house is gradually being evacuated of its tenants and, apart from Huo Feng, only two others remain – elderly Lin (Guan Zongxiang), who has been there for decades, and shady entrepreneur You Fei (Li Zhenfeng), who has a deal with Zheng Lei to sell him an antique Golden Buddha statuette for RMB2,000. While recording her footsteps on the stairs, Yu Hong says she can hear a strange noise from the basement. The basement has been locked up for years but Huo Feng investigates, breaking down the door to a room at the end of the corridor; but he finds nothing except rats and cobwebs. That night, listening to the tape, he hears a background noise like a voice and goes downstairs to make more recordings. Huo Feng visits Lin’s flat to help repair his TV, and Lin tells him the story of a 14-year-girl, Xiaoju (Li Hanyu), who committed suicide in the basement after various pressures during the Cultural Revolution. Yu Hong arrives while Lin is talking; but she has visions of the past involving Lin that make her hurriedly leave. Later that evening, Lin experiences horrific visions and dies after falling down the stairs. Huo Feng asks around about Xiaoju’s death but everyone says a lot of people suicided during the crazy days of the Cultural Revolution. While shooting one scene, Yu Hong has another vision of the past, this time of Zheng Lei hanging the keys round the dead Xiaoju’s neck. She quietly informs Huo Feng, and by chance Zheng Lei overhears their conversation. Huo Feng takes Yu Hong back to the house to see if the visit will trigger any more visions of the past, but with success. Subsequently, You Fei, who tricked Zheng Lei during the antique transaction, is lured into the basement by Zheng Lei’s voice and visions of US hundred-dollar bills, and becomes crazed. Later, hearing You Fei’s screams on his recorder, Huo Feng finally solves the mystery.
A key film in the history of the Mainland horror genre – in which everything must have a rational explanation – The Lonely Spirit in an Old Building 黑楼孤魂 still has considerable power a quarter of a century on, partly because it relies more on suggestive than dateable effects and partly because of its horrific backstory that is more hinted at than shown. Viewed in the spirit of the age – when actors were still voiced by professional dubbers and post-syching in general was very ropey – the story of a vengeful spirit in an old building’s basement triumphs over some of its clunkier moments to deliver a strangely creepy experience, capped by a terrific coda that’s as succinct as it is unexpected.
The film gets off to a great start with an opening five minutes taken up with only two scenes that, judging by the clothes, are set sometime during the Cultural Revolution: one in a hospital (shot and composed with a cold rigour) and another in a basement room (the aftermath of a shocking murder and maybe more). After the main title, cut to a soundstage in 1980s Beijing where a family melodrama is being shot and the sound man, wanting to tape a more ambient effect of footsteps on stairs, gets the leading actress to visit the dilapidated old house in which he has a flat. While there, they hear noises in the basement.
Both directors started as cameramen – Liang Ming 梁明 can be seen as the young d.p. of the film-within-a-film – which explains the picture’s strongly visual feel. Both made their directing debuts with Lonely Spirit, with Mu Deyuan 穆德远, then in his early 30s, also co-writing the script and Liang also taking a producing role. Mu went on to shoot films like The King of Masks 变脸 (1996) and direct commercial vehicles. After Lonely Spirit, Liang spent several years studying and working in the US before returning in 1997; he recently directed the delicately observed A Deux World 旗 (2015), about a rural teacher and an autistic boy pupil.
The script moves in blocks, with the sound man’s equipment and the actress’ paranormal vision (never explained) playing key roles. There’s no romance between the two leads but a kind of complicity in solving the central mystery that they both hear in their different ways; when the sound man finally puts two and two together at the 100-minute mark, the story then leads into its weirdest and most exploratory section. Imagine the same scenes with present-day technical effects and one can see why audiences at the time were impressed.
The screenplay would have benefited from some tightening – a whole subplot about an antique buddha figurine feels out of place, for a start – and some performances are over-ripe, especially the house’s manager at the start and the film’s director throughout. The two leads are OK in a 1980s way. As the sound man, Chen Xiguang 陈希光, then in his mid-30s, has a commanding presence; a theatre actor who went into films (Qiu Jin: A Revolutionary 秋瑾, 1983; A Single Woman 独身女人, 1991) and TV, he died in Jun 2017. As the actress, former model Pan Jie 潘婕 is stiff in her first film role; she went on to a career in films (Wenzhou Beauty 温州美人, 2004) and TV, and has directed two movies herself (Jinzhou Woman 晋州女人, 2007; Beautiful Bimbo 美丽笨女人, 2015). In the relatively small cast, however, the best and most natural performance comes from Guan Zongxiang 管宗祥, already a veteran in his early 60s, as a doddery old tenant with a murky past.
Art direction by Wang Xin 王忻 for the building (the rickety staircase, the cobwebbed basement) is particularly detailed, and the eclectic music track, beyond the usual atmospheric tinkles, uses an electronic keyboard version of the opening bars of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra plus an excerpt from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It’s now impossible to judge how stereo was used on the soundtrack but it appears to have been extensive, as sound is key to the whole story as well as taking the place of ghostly visual effects. (It’s also notable how the sound man brandishes his directional mike like a gun in the creepy moments.) Sound recordist Tao Jing 陶经 is still a major figure in his field.
Lonely Spirit was released on 27 Apr 1989 – coincidentally, the same day as the Beijing student march to Tiananmen Square – and was one of only a handful of films that year shown with a stereo soundtrack. The film ran 92 minutes and had 59 prints struck, only a moderate amount despite its success; posters warned “Please Don’t Watch This Film Alone!”. Legend has it that the film was pulled from cinemas after an elderly lady died from shock. Whatever the case, after leaving cinemas it remained unavailable – even as a pirate tape – until appearing on DVD many years later.
To put things into a political perspective, when Lonely Spirit came out the Cultural Revolution had already been officially condemned eight years earlier and “scar literature” 伤痕文学 – dealing with people’s sufferings during the period – had appeared as early as the late 1970s. “Scar dramas” had followed, with films like Evening Rain 巴山夜雨 (1980), Legend of Tianyun Mountain 天云山传奇 (1980), the hugely successful Hibiscus Town 芙蓉镇 (1986) and artier King of the Children 孩子王 (1987). So when characters in Lonely Spirit describe the “madness” of the era, it was nothing new. What was new was linking the social chaos of the period to a popular genre such as crime/horror movies. On release the film was officially classified as a “whodunit” 侦破, focusing on its criminal rather than ghostly elements – normal practice at a time when “horror” was not a recognised genre, despite there being scary films which would have been classified as such in other countries. (The costume “hopping vampire” film 夜走鬼城 [“Night Walking Ghost Town”], dir. Hu Gang 胡刚, released a week before Lonely Spirit, had been classified as “myth/legend” 传奇, and the modern ghost movie Two in the Morning 午夜两点, 1987, dir. Bao Zhifang 鲍芝芳, as a “whodunit”.)
The film’s Chinese title literally means “Dark Building, Lonely Spirit”. There is no English title on the print.
Produced by Shenzhen Pictures (CN).
Script: Mu Deyuan, Chen Yanmin. Photography: Li Jianguo. Editing: Yang Wei. Music: Qu Xiaosong. Art direction: Wang Xin. Costumes: Fang Fen. Sound: Tao Jing.
Cast: Chen Xiguang (Huo Feng), Pan Jie (Yu Hong), Han Xiaolei (Zheng Lei), Guan Zongxiang (Lin), Li Zhenfeng (You Fei), Li Geng (house manager), Wang Zhenrong (Xiaoju’s father), Li Hanyu (Xiaoju), Liang Ming (film’s cameraman).
Release: China, 27 Apr 1989.