The Zodiac Mystery
China, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 100 mins.
Director: Sheng Zhimin 盛志民.
A chaotic script and toneless direction sink this wannabe then-there-were-none whodunit.
Jiangsu province, China, the present day. Well-known author Tang Lin (Gan Wei) returns to her canal-side hometown and is surprised to see a bookshop display for a new novel by her, Zodiac Bizarre Incident 十二星座离奇事件. When she tells her agent (Wang Jingchun) she never wrote such a novel, and accuses him of using a ghostwriter, he says the manuscript was sent from her address. (The novel is about a group of childhood friends – each representing a sign of the zodiac – who are brought together 12 years later by the ghost of one of their group, Xiaoyu [Jing Yuan], who fell to his death and blames them for the incident; Xiaoyu tells them he is going to play a game in which all but one of them will die.) At a reunion of the friends, they express their surprise at the book, as they thought Tang Lin had retired from writing two years ago. They begin to wonder whether they will all die, as in the novel. Chen Wei (Tong Dawei), who is now a psychotherapist specialising in hypnotism, is pleased to see Tang Lin again, with whom he used to be a close friend. Cui Miao (Liu Yan), whose character Scorpio dies first in the novel, tells Xu Gaoshan (Song Ning), with whom she has had an affaire, that she still feels guilty about blaming Chen Wei for Xiaoyu’s death. Soon afterwards, she’s killed in a car accident that is witnessed by taxi driver Zhao Pin (Qin Hao) and professional illusionist Chen Xiaofeng (Qiao Renliang) as they drive to meet Tang Lin at her flat one day. Soon afterwards, Xiaofeng is killed when one of his stage illusions malfunctions. Tang Lin tells Chen Wei that in the novel she is the next to die, and says only she can find out who wrote the book.
The only mystery about The Zodiac Mystery 十二星座离奇事件 is how it ever got to be made. Of interest for being the first mainstream movie by Beijing-born Sheng Zhimin 盛志民 – best known for his atmospheric but very downbeat drama Bliss 浮生 (2006) that toured festivals – Zodiac proves once again that it isn’t easy to make genre movies. Set in a picturesque canal town in Jiangsu, the film has excellent widescreen photography by ace South Korean d.p. Gim Hyeong-gu 김형구 | 金炯求 (Memories of Murder 살인의 추억, 2003; The Host 괴물, 2006; and previously in China, Together 和你在一起, 2002, by Chen Kaige 陈凯歌) that earns it an extra point, plus a largely OK cast led by Tong Dawei 佟大为 (The Flowers of War 金陵十三钗, 2011). However, the script is chaotically organised and hardly makes sense; and, except in flashbacks to the characters’ youth, Sheng’s direction seems to have no idea how to evoke the least suspense or even how to stage basic scenes.
Zodiac starts as a then-there-were-none murder mystery in which a group of childhood friends begin dying off, just as in a novel supposedly written by one of them. But as the story broadens, the movie simply loses track of what it is meant to be. Aside from the lack of any overall tone, Sheng throws everything into the pot: some softcore sex, a smidgeon of costume fetishism, scenes of mental illness, straight melodrama, stabs of comedy, a film-within-a film, occasional zodiac gobbledygook, and whodunit visual cliches. With a decent script and dialogue, even all of that may have worked; but Zodiac isn’t even fun on a trashy level. In her first leading role, Gan Wei 甘薇 (Welcome to Shamatown 决战刹马镇, 2010) is unbelievable on every level; Tong is so-so in a poorly written role, and is often outclassed by more characterful actors like Qin Hao 秦昊 (Tokyo Newcomer 初到东京, 2012) and Song Ning 宋宁.
Produced by Hong Kong’s Chen Guo 陈果 [Fruit Chan], for whom Sheng has worked as a line producer and writer, Zodiac is only the director’s third fiction feature in a decade. The film bears no relation to the equally iffy, Tokyo-set drama Zodiac Killers 极道追踪 (1991), directed by Hong Kong’s Xu Anhua 许鞍华 [Ann Hui].
Presented by Le Vision Pictures (CN), Sil-Metropole Movie (CN).
Script: Sheng Zhimin, Liu Ya. Photography: Gim Hyeong-gu. Music: Huang Shaofeng. Art direction: Lv Dong. Costume design: Zhao Tong. Styling: Sean Kunjambu. Sound: Hao Teda, Ji Jing. Action: Gweon Gwi-deok.
Cast: Tong Dawei (Chen Wei), Gan Wei (Tang Lin/Gemini), Qin Hao (Zhao Pin/Taurus), Qiao Renliang (Chen Xiaofeng/Libra), Liu Yan (Cui Miao/Scorpio), Du Haitao (Zhou Kang/Leo), Song Ning (Xu Gaoshan/Pisces), Zhang Diaohan (doctor), Wang Jingchun (Tang Lin’s agent), Cao Shiping (old security guard), Qin Zihan (Xiaoqin), Sun Lingsheng (seller), Rong Fei (Tang Jianzhong), Liu Wenqing (young Chen Wei), Hu Xinyuan (young Tang Lin), Jing Yuan (Xiaoyu), Kang Shengwen (young Zhao Pin), Liu Jieyi (young Chen Xiaofeng), Li Yichen (young Cui Miao), He Ruiwen (young Zhou Kang), Tan Xiao (young Xu Gaoshan).
Release: China, 13 July 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 4 Aug 2012.)