China, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 99 mins.
Director: Zhou Yaowu 周耀武.
A well-directed low-budget slasher that’s light on real thrills.
Beijing, the present day. Stressed out over whether to dump her three-year boyfriend Zheng Ming (Hu Bing) in favour of Peter, a western businessman, video-game designer Meiqi (Mo Xiaoqi) finds her private life is affecting her work. She also suspects that Zheng Ming is now stalking her, and is the masked attacker who almost killed her one night in an underground carpark. So she can finally sort out her feelings, her boss Laura (Li Lingyu) arranges a holiday for her in a tropical archipelago, along with Zheng Ming, her work colleague YoYo (Zhao Ming) and YoYo’s boyfriend, Sen (Li Haoxuan). On arrival, their guide-cum-boatman Ma (Huang Daozhen) recommends staying on a smaller, prettier island nearby and takes them there. The hotel is only partly finished, as the original investor went bankrupt 10 years ago, and the place is run by just old Lin (Wang Shuangbao) and his retarded son Bang (Bak No-shik). Because of its idyllic location, the four agree to stay a couple of nights. The next day, while Zheng Ming and Meiqi go fishing, YoYo and Sen explore the island and discover an old fish smokehouse, where they’re drugged and murdered by Lin and Bang. Later, Zheng Ming and Meiqi also discover the same place, and find themselves in a hunt to the death.
A straight-up, low-budget slasher movie set on a remote island, Harpoon 惊魂游戏 hardly made any impression at the local box-office and enjoyed none of the surprise success of its nearest genre relative, 2011’s Mysterious Island 孤岛惊魂. (Being released in the middle of the busy New Year period probably didn’t help.) A conscious attempt to hitch a ride on China’s horror wave, and also to introduce suspense elements from low-budget western slashers, Harpoon lacks the sheer thrills and spills (and mild titillation) of Island but is actually much better directed.
Writer-director Zhou Yaowu 周耀武, 35, is slightly known on the festival circuit for his first feature, the arty tragi-comedy Cucumber 黄瓜 (2008); but he’s been in genre territory before with his 53-minute short Ghost Room 鬼寝 (2005), and Harpoon is just one of several (unproduced) genre scripts he wrote in a deliberate change of career direction after Cucumber. Despite its small cast and limited budget, there’s care shown in the casting, with Mo Xiaoqi 莫小棋 (Ocean Flame 一半海水一半火焰, 2008; Mural 画壁, 2011) top-billed as a troubled video-game designer sent on a holiday with three friends; TV actor-male supermodel Hu Bing 胡兵 in a relatively rare film role as Mo’s co-lead; big-breasted newcomer Zhao Ming 赵铭 (the brief sensation of Let the Bullets Fly 让子弹飞, 2010) as a trashy colleague; and South Korean character actor Bak No-shik 박노식 | 朴鲁植 (Memories of Murder 살인의 추억, 2003; War of the Arrows 최종병기 활, 2011) as a monkey-like retard.
After a fairly routine set-up, the film shifts into higher gear at the 40-minute mark, and is thereafter basically a life-or-death chase around the island, mostly at night. Zhou’s above-average care with visuals and framing comes into its own here, along with consistently fine camerawork by Hong Kong’s Li Tianwei 李天卫 (Twilight Dancing 车逝, 2008) and excellent editing – best seen in a sequence of Mo and Hu trapped in their room at night. Though there are signs of some cutting for violence, the film does trade more on atmosphere than blood-letting; its weakness, however, is that it’s never especially chilling or gripping and the final twist is ho-hum.
Mo again shows her considerable screen presence but once the action gets going has little to do except scream. Other performances are just okay, with the best in fact coming from Wang Shuangbao 王双宝 (Blind Shaft 盲井, 2003) as the hotel’s caretaker/cook. Harpoon is most effective as a calling-card, and it will be interesting to see whether Zhou fulfils the promise it shows.
The Chinese title means “The Scare Game” and is the same one used for local release of US horror movie Are You Scared (2008). “Harpoon” refers to the title of the latest video game by Mo’s character, though the film should be more accurately called Trident, given the principal weapon used throughout.
Presented by Tempo Films Investment (CN).
Script: Zhou Yaowu, Song Xiaobai. Photography: Li Tianwei. Editor: Gao Shan. Music: Liu Limin. Art direction: Zhang Jietao. Sound: Yang Xin. Visual effects: Yang Fuding.
Cast: Mo Xiaoqi (Meiqi), Hu Bing (Zheng Ming), Wang Shuangbao (Lin), Bak No-shik (Bang, Lin’s son), Zhao Ming (YoYo, Meiqi’s colleague), Li Haoxuan (Sen, YoYo’s boyfriend), Li Lingyu (Laura, Meiqi’s boss), Huang Daozhen (Ma, guide/boatman).
Release: China, 24 Jan 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 17 Mar 2012.)