China, 2007, colour, 1.85:1, 92 mins.
Director: Li Shaohong 李少红.
An elaborate conjuring trick, The Door is still a key film in the Mainland’s psycho-horror genre.
Chongqing city, central China, the present day. Ten days ago Wen Xin (Yang Mi), the childhood sweetheart of Jiang Zhongtian (Chen Kun), walked out, leaving him a note that she needed some space, some freedom in her life, and not to try to find her. For a long time Jiang Zhongtian had been suspicious of everyone’s intentions towards her, especially their mutual childhood friend Hong Yuan (Huang Jue) who had come back to the city a rich man and bought the publishing company that Jiang Zhongtian had set up. Jiang Zhongtian suspects Wen Xin left him for Hong Yuan, who was always an achiever in life, though Wen Xin had said there was no other man involved in her decision. At a splashy party thrown by Hong Yuan for his old school friends, Jiang Zhongtian had bumped into Li Zuowen (Lin Yushen), whom he had always suspected of trying to rape Wen Xin when they were younger, though both denied it. Now a taxi driver, Li Zuowen had been friendly towards him but Jiang Zhongtian had brushed him off. To please Wen Xin, and to cover a hole in the wall, Jiang Zhongtian starts to redecorate their flat, working late at night and becoming paranoid about noises in the corridor outside. Hong Yuan comes by to see him and to help, but Jiang Zhongtian rejects his offer and says he’ll return to work when he’s finished. Afterwards, Jiang Zhongtian starts having ghostly visions of Hong Yuan trying to get into the flat. A neighbour, Chang (Chang Xiaoyang) drops by to tell him that the police have asked him to report on anything strange, following a burglary in another flat; noticing that there’s a damp patch under the new wallpaper, Chang also offers to help with the decorating but Jiang Zhongtian refuses. As the damp spreads and the wallpaper starts to peel off, Jiang Zhongtian goes to question the woman in the flat above but comes across the police there. He runs away and jumps into a taxi. The driver happens to be Li Zuowen, who takes him on a hair-raising ride as they fight inside the cab.
An important film in the development of the psycho-horror genre in the Mainland, The Door 门 manages to keep a very simple plot spinning in the air for an hour-and-a-half by continually diverting the viewer with an elaborate three-card trick. Released in early 2007, the film helped the contemporary horror genre – already well developed in other Asian countries – to take off in the Mainland, even though the film itself is more of a psychological thriller than a “ghost” movie. More importantly, it was one of the first Mainland movies to look at the paranoia and emotional emptiness of the urban yuppie class behind all their material success, even though the theme plays second fiddle to basic thrills ‘n’ spills. Even though it doesn’t measure up in weirdness to its breathy title sequence, and falls back on spooky horror cliches in the final half-hour set in the countryside, The Door is still worth a look.
To date it’s the last feature film by Li Shaohong 李少红, a member of the so-called Fifth Generation who began her career with pulpy crime drama The Case of the Silver Snake 银蛇谋杀案 (1988) but then, inbetween TV drama series, became known for festival-friendly fare like Bloody Morning 血色清晨 (1990), Family Portrait 四十不惑 (1992), Blush 红粉 (1994), Baober in Love 恋爱中的宝贝 (2004) and Stolen Love 生死劫 (2005). Since The Door, made when she was in her early 50s, she’s concentrated on TVDs and producing.
Often wrongly described as the Mainland’s first locally-produced horror movie, it was the first film to be simultaneously released both theatrically and on other platforms (mobile phones, online TV, digital TV). On a genre level, it was just one of several films – including the more traditional “ghost” movie The Matrimony 心中有鬼, financed by Huayi Brothers, with a heavyweight line-up of Greater China stars, and released a month later – that were pushing the envelope during that period against official restrictions on “ghost” material. For its two leads, The Door was also important: actor Chen Kun 陈坤, then 30, expanded beyond handsome romantic roles and actress Yang Mi 杨幂, 20, who was forging a career largely in TV drama series, gained in profile. (Ironically, her next big-screen role, four years later, was in another horror, the surprise hit Mysterious Island 孤岛惊魂, 2007.)
The screenplay was co-written by Yang Jiang 杨江, who’d worked on another pioneering horror movie, the Hong Kong co-production Curse of Lola 诅咒 (2005), by Mainland director Li Hong 李虹. Officially The Door is based on the 2004 novel 三岔口 (literally, “A Fork in the Road”) by one of the Mainland’s best-known thriller authors, Zhou Dedong 周德东, though the resemblance is only tangential (see book cover, left). The novel is largely concerned with the revenge of two friends, Hong Yuan and Wen Xin, against a third friend, Jiang Zhongtian, who made off with the first’s money and ditched the second as his girlfriend. Their revenge is tied up with Jiang Zhongtian going mad from various hauntings. The film concentrates solely on Jiang Zhongtian’s breakdown, which is apparently for different reasons – chiefly, an obsession that Wen Xin has walked out on him due to an affaire she’s having with Hong Yuan, a high achiever whom he’s always been jealous of. As Jiang Zhongtian slowly goes mad in his flat, other obsessions surface, such as his belief that another schoolfriend, who’s now a taxi driver, once tried to rape Wen Xin. The Big Twist does come as a surprise, though in retrospect has been subtly signalled from the start.
Director Li dedicates the movie to Alfred Hitchcock but it’s nothing like a Hitchcock film. If a western parallel is sought, during the first half it’s more reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), with Catherine Deneuve’s character going potty in her Kensington flat. In The Door, the setting is the central China metropolis of Chongqing, in which Chen’s character of Jiang Zhongtian – a failed yuppie who’s jealous of everyone else’s success – mopes in his modern flat after the disappearance of the love of his life. While redecorating the place, his obsessions gradually overwhelm him.
The film dispenses with formal structure and becomes a free-flowing stream of consciousness, with almost continuous voiceover by Jiang Zhongtian and flashes backwards and forwards in time. There’s little delineation between what is real and what is in his imagination, underlined by the spacey, unconventional score by Liu Suola 刘索拉 which sometimes incorporates vocal lines alongside musical tinklings. What is ever-present, however, is the modern glass-and-steel city of Chongqing (actually actor Chen’s hometown) with the monorail forever gliding past his window and the general soullessness mirroring Jiang Tianzhong’s own. The cool, grey photography by Li’s regular d.p., her husband Zeng Nianping 曾念平, further accentuates the feeling.
Chen (who was previously in Li’s Baober) actually doesn’t have much to do here except look wide-eyed, haunted and bitter, while Yang, in a come-and-go role, is also hardly stretched beyond being sweet. More characterful are Huang Jue 黄觉 (also in Baober) as Jiang Zhongtian’s supposed enemy, Chang Xiaoyang 常晓阳 (also the film’s executive director 执行导演) as a talkative neighbour, and especially Lin Yushen 林雨申 (here billed under his former name Lin Shen 林申) as an easygoing taxi-driver friend whom Jiang Zhongtian suspects once tried to rape his girlfriend. Lin shares the film’s midway showpiece, an eight-minute sequence in which the two fight in a speeding car, superbly staged by Hong Kong action director Luo Lixian 罗礼贤 [Bruce Law] and cut by fellow Hong Konger Li Dongquan 李栋全 [Wenders Li]. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Produced by Stellar Megamedia Group (CN), Beijing Rosat Film Productions (CN). Produced by Beijing Rosat Film Productions (CN), Stellar Mega Films (CN).
Script: Sun Weining, Yang Jiang. Novel: Zhou Dedong. Photography: Zeng Nianping. Editing: Li Dongquan [Wenders Li]. Music: Liu Suola. Art direction: Di Kun. Styling: Chen Gufang. Sound: Wang Yong. Action: Luo Lixian [Bruce Law]. Visual effects: Toby Angwin (Intercolour Post).
Cast: Chen Kun (Jiang Zhongtian), Yang Mi (Wen Xin), Huang Jue (Hong Yuan), Lin Yushen (Li Zuowen), Chang Xiaoyang (policeman/Chang, neighbour).
Release: China, 18 Jan 2007.