China, 2013, colour, 2.35:1, 93 mins.
Director: Qian Jianghan 钱江汉.
Ambitious mix of comedy and horror disguises an offbeat character study, set in a luxury undertaker’s.
Yunnan province, southern China, the present day. Since being struck as a child by lightning when visiting his undertaker uncle Li Qingsong (Zhan Ruiwen) in a neighbouring village, Niu Xiaobo (Bao Bei’er) has been unable to smile due to a muscular condition caused by the incident. When his mother (Yang Gongru) died 10 years later, in 2011, he was cared for by Li Qingsong, who still felt responsible for his well-being. Niu Xiaobo is immediately put to work in Li Qingsong’s huge undertaking business which provides lavish funeral services of every kind. Thrown in at the deep end, Niu Xiaobo meets the other employees: young cosmetician Bai Yujie (Wen Yongshan), who tells him scary tales and shores up his belief that the huge building is haunted, and old cremator Wang (Feng Cuifan), who is past retirement age but is kept on by Li Qingsong out of pity for the widower. The nervous Niu Xiaobo receives a baptism of fire in all of the centre’s services, though Li Qingsong is always around to put him at ease in a paternal way. He learns from Bai Yujie that her boyfriend Han Song (Zhang Chao), whom she met at medical college, left her to further his career but hasn’t returned as promised. Wang, on the other hand, still grieves for his wife and cannot bring himself to cremate her body. As Niu Xiaobo has one after another weird experience – including a company chairman (Jing Gangshan) who fakes his own funeral to find out what people think of him – he slowly grows in self-assurance.
The humour doesn’t always work as intended but the central idea remains fresh and intriguing throughout Mortician 临终囧事, a black comedy about a young man who belatedly comes of age in the weird universe of a luxury undertaker’s. Part comedy-horror, part horror-comedy and part genre spoof, it’s actually more like an offbeat character study – of an unworldly innocent who has a crash course in life from a unique perspective and finally becomes ready to take on life itself. Mainland-funded and shot, but heavily Hong Kong on the creative side, it performed almost invisibly on release (RMB8 million).
The film was promoted in China as a horror-comedy from Hong Kong film-makers Wen Jun 文隽 [Manfred Wong] and Ye Weimin 叶伟民 [Raymond Yip], already known in the Mainland for their surprise hit, odd-couple comedy Lost on Journey 人在囧途 (2010), and for the horror Blood Stained Shoes 绣花鞋 (2012). Though both are producers on Mortician, and the screenplay is by Wen, the actual director is Hong Kong’s Qian Jianghan 钱江汉, a veteran assistant director who also made a couple of local horrors a few years earlier (Scare 2 Die 吓死你！, 2008; The Vampire Who Admires Me 有只僵尸暗恋你, 2008) and was executive director for Ye on Shoes. Most of the (largely Hong Kong) key crew is also from Shoes, including longtime composer Luo Jian 罗坚 [Lincoln Lo], d.p. Xu Shaojiang 徐少江 and editor Ye Wanting 叶婉婷. Some of the Mainland supporting cast (Jing Gangshan 景岗山, Mo Xiaoqi 莫小棋, Han Zhi 韩志) were also in Shoes, so it’s all very much a family affair.
Just to get the audience in the right mood, the film starts with a neat joke about a taxi driver who picks up a woman who looks like a movie ghost. That out of the way, it then sketches the family background of villager Niu Xiaobo, who was struck by lightning when a boy and hasn’t been able to smile since due to nervous damage. When his mother dies – 1990s discovery Yang Gongru 杨恭如 [Kristy Yang] in a weepy cameo – he’s looked after by his uncle who runs a luxury undertaker’s business from a hilltop palace through which all kinds of clients pass. Living literally on the job (in a store room), Niu Xiaobo has a beautiful, masked cosmetician and an aged cremator as “family”.
Xu’s often geometrically composed visuals (all steely, antiseptic colours) and the clinical-looking interiors by Hong Kong art director Huo Dahua 霍达华 (all long corridors, clinical rooms, curtains and screens) make the huge building, which seems to have no internal geography, a world unto itself through which Niu Xiaobo moves – first with trepidation (convinced it’s haunted) and then with growing confidence. The film cleverly walks a balance between horror cliches (ghostly lighting, creepy soundtrack, creaking doors etc) and offbeat character comedy, with the latter gradually taking precedence.
In his first leading film role, boyish-looking Mainland actor Bao Bei’er 包贝尔, whose career was then really starting to come into its own (So Young 致我们终将逝去的青春, 2013; The Palace 宫 锁沉香, 2013), handles the early, innocent country boy scenes with his patented wide-eyed look; but the actor, then 29, grades Niu Xiaobo’s maturation with some skill and shows a quiet authority near the end. Veteran Hong Kong comic Zhan Ruiwen 詹瑞文 [Jim Chim] eats up what scenery there is as the smooth-talking boss-cum-father figure, while fellow veteran Feng Cuifan 冯淬帆 [Stanley Fung] and actress Wen Yongshan 文咏珊 [Janice Man] have some fun as an old cremator and a teasingly mysterious cosmetician. Of the several cameos, as the undertaker’s clients, Jing is best as a chairman who fakes his own funeral to hear what people really think of him.
Wen’s script never goes really deep, and often seems torn between being a commercial entertainment-cum-vehicle for Zhan or an offbeat, more trenchant study of the growing process. But it manages to stay involving despite its almost zero plot, and rates an extra point just for ambition. The Chinese title literally means “Deathbed Gloomy Things”; more importantly, it contains the obscure character 囧 jiŏng which has become popular during the past decade as an emoticon similar to the western :-(. The Chinese title of Ye and Wen’s comedy Lost on Journey famously hitched a ride on it.
Presented by Hangzhou Herun Film (CN), Bona Film Group (CN). Produced by Hangzhou Herun Film (CN), Bona Film Group (CN).
Script: Wen Jun [Manfred Wong]. Photography: Xu Shaojiang. Editing: Ye Wanting. Music: Luo Jian [Lincoln Lo]. Art direction: Huo Dahua. Styling: Xu Jianshu [Lawrence Xu]. Sound: Feng Jun. Visual effects: Chen Junwen, Xu Fei.
Cast: Bao Bei’er (Niu Xiaobo), Zhan Ruiwen [Jim Chim] (Li Qingsong), Wen Yongshan [Janice Man] (Bai Yujie), Feng Cuifan [Stanley Fung] (Wang, cremator), Mo Xiaoqi (Xia Xiaohe), Jing Gangshan (Chen Bin), Yang Gongru [Kristy Yang] (Li Hongmei, Niu Xiaobo’s mother), Lin Zicong (taxi driver), Yang Dapeng (Lao Da), Li Xiaochuan (Lao Er), Han Zhi (Fang Daming), Zhang Chao (Han Song, Bai Yujie’s boyfriend), Du Zhaoyi (woman in white), Cai Die (Chen Bin’s secretary), Wei Jie (doctor), Sun Yikun (young Niu Xiaobo), Xu Haoran (modern-day doctor), Yang Kewen (Xiaowei, Xia Xiaohe’s young son).
Release: China, 16 May 2013.