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Review: The House That Never Dies

The House That Never Dies

京城81号

China, 2014, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 88 mins.

Director: Ye Weimin 叶伟民 [Raymond Yip].

Rating: 7/10.

China’s biggest-grossing horror movie oozes quality visuals but is let down by an unoriginal script.

STORY

Taiwan, the present day. Novelist Xu Ruoqing (Lin Xinru) tells her mother, Jin Wenfang (Jin Yanling), that she’s moving to Beijing with her daughter, Zhao Xiaomeng (Zhang Yuwen), to live with the latter’s father, book publisher Zhao Yitang (Wu Zhenyu), who’s finally divorced his first wife. Xu Ruoqing says her grandmother, Huo Nianjun, who was born in Beijing but raised in Taiwan, would be glad to know she’s going back to the Huo ancestral home. Jin Wenfang, however, decides to stay in Taiwan. In Beijing the two are met by Zhao Yitang and his assistant Liuli (Mo Xiaoqi), who first introduced them. At the spacious but spooky old house, Xu Ruoqing meets old Gen (Yuang Xiangren), lifelong caretaker to the Huo family. That evening, Xu Ruoqing thinks she sees a ghostly young girl in a red dress; when Zhao Yitang is called out in the middle of the night because of a printing problem with Xu Ruoqing’s latest novel, she feels lonely and works on her research into the Huo family. (Back in 1931 Huo Lianqi [Yang Youning], just back from studying in Europe, had fallen in love with the chief courtesan, Lu Dieyu [Lin Xinru], at the Pavilion of Drunken Dreams 醉梦楼. But his father, Huo Lianxiu [Wu Zhenyu], had objected.) Zhao Xiaomeng tells her mother she’s also seen the girl in red, and the two of them play ball with her in a corridor. (To solve the problem, Huo Lianxiu had forced Lu Dieyu to “marry” the corpse of Huo Lianqi’s sickly elder brother [Li Jing], who’d just died, and had her locked in the same coffin. She’d been rescued by Huo Lianqi and they immediately exchanged wedding vows and consummated their union.) Still unable to sleep, Xu Ruoqing is visited by Liuli, whom Zhao Yitang has sent over with a bottle of wine. Liuli surprises Xu Ruoqing by saying Zhao Yitang has still not got a divorce from his first wife. After Xu Ruoqing freaks out at a reception for her latest novel, 梦回青楼 (“Dreaming of Brothels”), Zhao Yitang takes her to Cangshan Sanatorium, where his first wife, Mo Xuan (Xia Wenxi), is a patient; she screams at both of them and refuses to sign the divorce papers. Back home, while investigating a giant iron stairwell, Xu Ruoqing finds an old cashbox with a locket, Huo family pictures, and love letters. (When Lu Dieyu fell pregnant, the family had her hidden away in an underground room at the bottom of the stairwell. After she had given birth to a daughter, Huo Nianjun, and with Huo Lianqi away, Huo Lianxiu had doted on both of them, inciting the jealousy of his wife, Surong [Xia Wenxi].) Xu Ruoqing becomes convinced Zhao Yitang and Liuli are having an affair, though the latter adamantly denies it. Xu Ruoqing visits an old psychiatrist friend (Qin Hailu) for advice. But it’s only when she visits old Gen that the Huo family’s secrets are unlocked to her.

REVIEW

After the interesting but so-so village ghost story Blood Stained Shoes 绣花鞋 (2012), Hong Kong journeyman Ye Weimin 叶伟民 [Raymond Yip] and his regular producer-writer Wen Jun 文隽 [Manfred Wong] (Portland Street Blues 古惑仔情义篇之洪兴十三妹, 1998; Lost on Journey 人在囧途, 2010; Bruce Lee My Brother 李小龙, 2010) reunite several of the same cast and crew for a more upscale horror opus, The House That Never Dies 京城81号. Centred on a spooky old ancestral home in Beijing, to which a Taiwan novelist moves to live with the Mainland father of her young daughter, it’s always watchable but never especially original, and is saved by its classy production values. Released in 3-D in the Mainland, it became China’s highest-grossing horror film ever, with a scarey RMB412 million. Despite some claims that it redefined Mainland horror films at a stroke, it’s no better than above-average.

As in Shoes, the long set-up – with flashbacks to a doomed romance in the 1930s and lots of family shennanigans – is more interesting than the full-on ghostly finale, whose shock quotient isn’t particularly high and which relies on another flashback narrated by an aged caretaker. This being a Mainland horror, there’s also a rational explanation for everything at the end – a scientifically impossible solution (check the dates) that’s delivered with a totally straight face by actress Qin Hailu 秦海璐, in one of her only two scenes.

Despite all this, and another anodyne lead performance from Taiwan’s Lin Xinru 林心如 [Ruby Lin] – whose career has since swung from melodrama to horror movies – the film remains watchable thanks to the Hong Kong trio of art director Liu Shiyun 刘世运, costume designer Zhang Shijie 张世杰 [Silver Cheung] and d.p. Xu Shaojiang 徐少江, last teamed on Shoes. From the saturated colours of the lavish 1930s brothel, through the dark shadows of the old, present-day, wood-and-brick house, to the dazzling white of a luxury loonybin and the slatted light of a vast underground stairwell, the movie oozes quality visual design at every level. More’s the pity the script – by Wen, plus Mainlanders Yang Meiyuan 杨梅媛 (Shoes) and Li Jingling 李晶凌 – isn’t as stylish, though in its opening half-hour and with its clever doubling of roles by the same actors in the two parallel stories, it looks like being a cut above the norm.

Then 38, but looking way younger in the flashbacks, Lin casts hardly a shadow in the lead role. As in Shoes, she’s outclassed by Mainland-born, Australian-raised Mo Xiaoqi 莫小棋, 33, who’s a forceful screen presence as the husband’s business assistant. As the boyfriend in the flashbacks, Taiwan’s Yang Youning 杨祐宁 is pretty but bland. It’s Hong Kong veteran Wu Zhenyu 吴镇宇 [Francis Ng], who keeps the film motoring as the devoted partner of Lin’s sappy writer and as the stern but besotted 1930s paterfamilias. Now in his early 50s, and developing some character in his face, Wu is settling down nicely into older roles, and has enough intensity to override the script’s cliches. As a lynchpin in the drama, fellow Hong Kong veteran Xia Wenxi 夏文汐 [Pat Ha] overacts wildly in a couple of scenes, the equivalent of the village spinster of Hui Yinghong 惠英红 [Kara Hui] in Shoes; Xia is more restrained as the paterfamilias’ wife in the flashbacks.

Though the flashbacks start in 1932, according to a screen caption, the birthdate of someone who was born at least nine months later is given on her gravestone as Feb 1932, which is impossible. The film’s original Chinese title was 朝内81号 (“Chaonei 81”, short for Chaoyangmennei Jie 81), which is the address of the Beijing property that inspired the film – an old building in the city centre that’s famous as a “haunted house”, supposedly with the ghost of a woman who committed suicide.

Actors Lin and Yang, and the whole off-screen gang of Ye, Wen & Co., have since reunited on another 3-D horror, Phantom of the Theatre 魔宫魅影 (2016), which grossed only a fifth of House.

CREDITS

Presented by Fujian Hengye Film Distribution (CN). Produced by Fujian Hengye Film Distribution (CN).

Script: Wen Jun [Manfred Wong], Yang Meiyuan, Li Jingling. Original story: Yu Lei. Photography: Xu Shaojiang. Editing: Li Jiarong, Ye Wanting. Music: Chen Zhiyi [Yu Peng]. Song music: Chen Zhiyi [Yu Peng]. Lyrics: Wu Di. Vocals: Zhu Zirong. Art direction: Liu Shiyun. Costume design: Zhang Shijie [Silver Cheung]. Sound: Wang Yueqi, Zeng Jingxiang [Kinson Tsang], Li Zhixiong. Action: Wu Yonglun. Visual effects: Zheng Wenzheng, Wang Xianliang (Shanghai Creasun).

Cast: Wu Zhenyu [Francis Ng] (Zhao Yitang; Huo Lianxiu), Lin Xinru [Ruby Lin] (Xu Ruoqing; Lu Dieyu), Mo Xiaoqi (Liuli, Zhao Yitang’s assistant; Xiangwen), Yang Youning (Huo Lianqi), Xia Wenxi [Pat Ha] (Mo Xuan, Zhao Yitang’s wife; Surong, Huo Lianxiu’s wife), Li Jing (Huo Lianping, Huo Lianqi’s elder brother), Yuan Xiangren (old Gen, caretaker), Li Xiaochuan (Fan Yuan’an; Zhou, banker), Han Zhi (Han; property agent), Qin Hailu (psychiatrist), Jin Yanling [Elaine Jin] (Jin Wenfang, Xu Ruoqing’s mother), Ru Tian (aunt; nurse), Zhang Yuwen (Zhao Xiaomeng, Xu Ruoqing’s daughter), Gu Yuhan (Zhao Shishi, Zhao Yitang’s daughter), Wang Yuan (Huo Nianjun, Lu Dieyu’s daughter), Pan Ziyi (young Gen), Zhang Juming (teenage Gen), Chen Wei (procuress).

Release: China, 18 Jul 2014.