China, 2019, colour, 2.35:1, 87 mins.
Directors: Yang Panpan 杨盼盼 [Sharon Yeung], Cao Shangshui 曹尚水, Zhao Zhenbang 赵振邦.
Modest college horror just about holds the interest despite a poorly constructed script.
Somewhere in East Asia, the present day. Due to her poor exam results, Li Zhenxin (Chen Lin) has only managed to get a place at a college outside Mainland China, much to the concern of her mother (Yang Huiqin) who phones her the whole time. Li Zhenxin arrives two days early at Chewlam University – an all-female technical college that used to be called Asia University – and takes a single room on the third floor of the dormitory building. No other students have arrived yet, and the next day she’s told the briefing for new pupils has yet to be announced. The staff are unfriendly and the atmosphere is creepy. Thinking she’s the only student on her floor, Li Zhenxin is worried when she hears sounds from the next room and finds a strange figure under the bed. It turns out to be Zhang Youmei (Cao Yue), a second-year physiotherapy student who has just resumed her studies after being expelled for a year but has no money for a room. She asks Li Zhenxin if she can stay on the 3rd floor, and the two become friends. Li Zhenxin, who is studying speech therapy, finds her fellow students uncommunicative or hostile, with no real interest in the subject. Her only friend is Zhang Youmei, who seems to know more about the college than she wants to say. Meanwhile, Li Zhenxin has become intrigued by the Radiology Research Department, which is still off-limits even after being closed down. After she has a nightmare about finding Zhang Youmei and some ghostly figures there, she insists on visiting it with her friend. But Zhang Youmei disappears soon after they enter the building. Meanwhile, the hot water and heating break down in the dormitory building and Li Zhenxin finds her bed full of bugs.
Considerably less generic than it sounds from the title – though whether by accident or design it’s hard to say – college horror Girl Dorm 少女宿舍 has an interesting idea it its core, a scarcity of the usual “ghostly” tropes and a passable performance by Mainland actress Chen Lin 陈淋 in her first leading role. The handful of speaking roles – with the lion’s share taken by the two female leads – is another offbeat touch that makes the film interesting enough to hold the attention without being especially scary or accomplished. Box office was just below RMB2 million, average for this kind of horror outing.
The offbeat nature of the whole production extends to the off-screen talent as well. Funded by a Mainland affiliate of Hong Kong’s Star Alliance Movies 星光联盟影业, it groups three Hong Kongers who’ve worked together on pulp movies during recent years (notably The Haunting Lover 等着你回来, 2010): presenter/producer Zhang Qiping 张启平, action director Ye Yongjian 叶永健 and, last but not least, 1980s battling babe-turned-producer Yang Panpan 杨盼盼 [Sharon Yeung]. This time, Zhang is credited (atypically) with the script, Ye with the (minimal) action and Yang as creative producer 监制. There’s no actual director named on the film itself. On posters, Yang and Mainland stuntman Cao Shangshui 曹尚水 are credited with the job; on the main and end titles, Cao and Hong Konger Zhao Zhenbang 赵振邦 are named as “executive directors” while in the end titles Yang is also named as director as well as creative producer (though only in the English, not Chinese). If true, this would be the first directing credit for Yang, 60, in her entire career. Confused? There’s more.
At an early stage of production the film’s Chinese title was 耳边低语 (“Ear Whispers”) and appears to have had South Korean director Bak Gi-hyeong 박기영 | 朴歧炯 (high-school horror Whispering Corridors 여고괴담, 1998) attached. The finished film credits several South Koreans as key crew (d.p., editor, music, sound design), while the cast is a mixture of Mainlanders in leading roles with Hong Kong veterans cameoing for a scene or two. The sense of confusion even extends to the film’s setting, though this is clearly intentional to make the story timeless: the Mainland heroine is shown flying on a (fictitious) Korean-Chinese airline apparently to Jeju island, South Korea, but she arrives in a Mandarin-speaking country that uses traditional Chinese characters (i.e. Taiwan).
All this background is almost as interesting as the movie itself, which follows a high-school graduate with lousy marks to a women’s technical college “abroad” where her co-students are either hostile or robotic and she finds only one true friend, an expelled student who’s come back for the second half of her degree in physiotherapy. Said student seems to know more about the college than she’s prepared to let on; but at the 70-minute mark, after various ghostly occurrences, she basically explains the whole plot to the mystified heroine. That’s just one of several clumsy moments in Zhang’s script, which has an interesting central idea – roaming spirits robbed of their identity and history – but doesn’t really know how to develop it in either a consistent or a dramatic way. As well as having litle regard for structure – we don’t even learn the heroine’s name until halfway through – the screenplay is littered with other undeveloped bits, such as the heroine studying speech therapy (due to a stutter in her youth) and seemingly having some contact with the spirits that haunt the college.
Where the film impresses more is in its spartan construction: most of the dialogue given to the female lead and her mysterious friend, very few of the usual “ghost” effects, and more time spent on atmosphere than generic shocks. Looking a little like a younger Zhang Jingchu 张静初, Chen, who previously had a supporting role in youth drama The Young with No Fear 我们的青春不怕疼 (2017), makes an okay, non-scream-queen lead and bonds well with the slightly more experienced Cao Yue 曹越 as her mysteriously bipolar dorm-pal. Among the roster of Hong Kong veterans, Luo Lan 罗兰 pops up for one scene as a canteen server and Tian Qiwen 田启文 ditto as an angry dormitory director with a heavy Cantonese accent.
When they come, the “ghostly” moments are simple and inventive, and the score – mostly atmospheric sound effects – keeps the mood gently simmering throughout.
Presented by 2018 Star Alliance Movies Wuxi (CN). Produced by Zhengnengliang On-Demand Cinemas Wuxi (CN).
Script: Zhang Qiping. Photography: Bae Yeong-su. Editing: Gim Hye-gyeong. Music: Jeong Ji-hun. Additional music: Zhao Suhui, Oh Heui-jin. Art direction: Chen Yuguo. Costume design: Guo Lili. Sound: Tang Junchang, Gong Tae-weon. Action: Ye Yongjian. Visual effects: Song Seung-hwan (The Color).
Cast: Chen Lin (Li Zhenxin), Cao Yue (Zhang Youmei), Tian Qiwen (dormitory director), Jiang Haowen [Philip Keung] (lecturer), Luo Lan (canteen server), Yang Huiqin (Huang, Li Zhenxin’s mother), Wang Yuan (accommodation manager), Li Pei (student counsellor), Gim Sang-uk (lecturer’s assistant), Li Mingguang (middle-aged man in black).
Release: China, 15 Mar 2019.