China, 2013, colour, 2.35:1, 81 mins.
Directors: Cheng Lidong 程力栋, Li Yuan 李远.
Quirky but untidily written horror keeps promising to be better than it ever is.
A city in central China, the present day. Six people who congregate around a website devoted to supernatural phenomena decide to spend the night in an old four-storey apartment block that’s said to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman who committed suicide in red clothes after being ill-treated by her man. The ghost can reportedly be heard crying in the middle of the night. The case has generated much concern among the city’s inhabitants, and all the tenants in the block have moved out. The last to go is a stubborn old widow (Chen Qi), and the event is covered by a local TV station. The six ghosthunters are: webmaster Da Sheng (Miao Haojun), musician Dawei (Zhang Daming), Guangzhou businessman Lin Keran (Tan Yaowen), website owner Jin Shengshui (Na Wei), advertising planner Ying Tao (Bai Liuxi) who first mentioned the story on the website, and well-known online horror-story writer Xia Lidong (Lin Xinru) who’s just broken up with her money-obsessed boyfriend, Liang Haonan (Chen Sihan). Entering the building at 23:00 they go up to the roof where they find a traditional Chinese chair with some red clothing on it, After a scare, the group runs inside but loses Jin Shengshui en route. Ying Tao says the chair reminds her of one her family owned in the countryside when she was young. Meanwhile, Jin Shengshui bumps into a man (Hou Fuguo) who says he’s the reason for the young woman, Xiaohong (Du Shiwu), committing suicide, but all the stories about him are untrue; he sleeps in the building every night, waiting for her to return. The other five bed down in a room but when they wake up next morning they find they’re back on the roof and Jin Shengshui has returned. Puzzled, they decide to return the following night and stay awake the whole time. On the way home, Xia Lidong bumps into Liang Haonan, who publically begs her to take him back, which she does. Next night she goes to the haunted house again but find herself alone. Only after publishing her experiences online does she discover the truth behind the haunting.
A blow-and-throw Mainland horror that keeps promising to be better than it is, The House 楼 is strictly for hard-core aficionados, who will immediately note its two points of specialist interest – one of the lesser-known horrors made by Taiwan TV drama queen Lin Xinru 林心如 [Ruby Lin] during a wobbly stage of her career, as well as being one whose plot doesn’t rely on the usual Mainland formulae of “it was all a dream/chemical hallucination” for a rational explanation. Co-written and co-directed by TV drama director Cheng Lidong 程力栋, who’s head of co-producer Zhejiang Yongle Film & TV Production, it’s also the third feature outing by Zhejiang-born writer-director Li Yuan 李远, who debuted with the action-comedy Coming Home 回马枪 (2011), co-directed the charming kid’s film On My Way 跑出一片天 (2012) and recently realised his promise with family drama Dinner for Six 六人晚餐 (2016).
Starting in her mid-30s, Lin embarked on a string of Mainland horror movies in an apparent attempt to reposition her film career; the best of the five were all directed by Hong Kong’s Ye Weimin 叶伟民 [Raymond Yip] – Blood Stained Shoes 绣花鞋 (2012), smash hit The House That Never Dies 京城81号 (2014) and Phantom of the Theatre 魔宫魅影 (2016). None of them could be said to have stretched her, and neither does The House, where she plays a 28-year-old horror author who finds herself embroiled in a mysterious “haunting”. Initially part of a group that spends a night in a spooky building, the character only comes to the forefront in the second half as she accidentally discovers the truth; but it’s largely a reactive role, and Lin can’t be said to own the movie despite being its top-billed star. (Ironically, her strongest performance in quite a while came not in a horror film but in a crime drama, the recent The Devotion of Suspect X 嫌疑人X的献身, 2017.) As her character’s ambitious, money-obsessed boyfriend, Hong Kong TV actor-singer Chen Sihan 陈司翰 (younger brother of actress-singer Chen Huilin 陈慧琳 [Kelly Chen]) is well cast and briefly cuts a strong profile, while others have individual moments but no development.
The film’s lack of focus is almost all down to the script, credited to Cheng and writer-cum-Christian pastor Zhou Yanyu 周雁羽, who first submitted the idea to Yongle. If there was any religious content in her original, it hasn’t survived the development process with Cheng. Despite that, the film keeps throwing up quirky ideas but they aren’t followed through on: the highly sexual attraction between Lin’s writer and her errant boyfriend (who seem to spend most of the time in bed), her own childhood plagued by ghostly visions, the apparently sudden obsession for her by one of the ghosthunters (which leads to the weird final scene and Lin’s last line), and so on. The direction, often composed of long handheld takes and free of flashy editing, steers a steadier course that’s not found in the untidy script.
Technically, the production, set in an unnamed city but shot in Hangzhou, has a low-budget look, with limited VFX but a busy sound-effects track, all swishy creepy noises. The use of models in the opening and closing for the city’s nightscape – creating a weird, unearthly feel – is another idea that’s also not developed on the visual side, which is otherwise realistic in the widescreen photography by Geng Yun 耿云.
On some posters, but not on the film itself, the English title is The Haunted House. Mainland box office was an invisible RMB3.7 million. Co-director Li pops up in a cameo as a chauffeur near the end, while Cheng’s daughter, Cheng Menlixue 程门丽雪, plays the main character as a child.
Presented by Shanghai Film Group (CN), Zhejiang Yongle Film & TV Production (CN), Lixiang Cultural Industry (CN). Produced by Shanghai Film Group (CN), Shanghai Film Studio (CN), Zhejiang Yongle Film & TV Production (CN), Lixiang Cultural Industry (CN).
Script: Zhou Yanyu, Cheng Lidong. Photography: Geng Yun. Editing: Zhao Wei. Music: uncredited. Art direction: Guo Jiang. Costumes: Jin Sihan. Sound: Tian Ye. Action: Chen Linhai. Executive direction: Duan Zhiqiang.
Cast: Lin Xinru [Ruby Lin] (Xia Lidong), Tan Yaowen (Lin Keran), Chen Sihan (Liang Haonan), Na Wei (Jin Shengshui), Zhang Daming (Dawei), Miao Haojun (Da Sheng), Bai Liuxi (Ying Tao), Du Shiwu (Xiaohong), Cheng Menlixue (young Xia Lidong), Chen Qi (old widow), Qiu Ye (Xiaoye, TV reporter), Fang Hao (cameraman), Hou Fuguo (Xiaohong’s boyfriend), Shao Qingfei (Da Sheng’s wife), Xue Xiaolong (Da Sheng’s father), Yang Jian (Yuan Zizhou), Xie Yiping (receptionist), Ding Yuwen (female ghost), Li Yuan (Xiaoli, Lin Keran’s driver).
Release: China, 28 Mar 2013.