The Strange House
China, 2015, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 86 mins.
Director: Peng Fa 彭发 [Danny Pang].
Modest Mainland psycho-horror benefits from careful direction and good production values.
Shanxi province, northern China, 2014. Ye Zi (Xu Jiao), who works as a cleaner in a hairdresser’s, is approached by hospital doctor Le Zijun (Zhang Zhaohui) to impersonate his niece Le Rong, whom she closely resembles, for a short time so Le Rong’s elderly grandmother (Bi Xiuru), who is almost blind and has only a short time to live, can die in peace. Le Zijun says Le Rong, whose parents had already passed away, died in an accident a year ago but the family told her grandmother that she went abroad to study. As she desperately needs some money, Ye Zi agrees and is driven to the old, courtyard-style residence in the countryside where the family has lived for six generations. Also living there is Le Zijun’s girlfriend, Nana (Song Yi), his younger brother (Lu Siyu), and the latter’s wife (Tian Zitian). When Le Zijun is away in town on work, the three are hostile to Ye Zi, though the grandmother is the opposite, secretly telling Ye Zi she’s willed the mansion to her. Ye Zi is plagued with visions, especially of a young boy, and feels like going back to town. Le Zijun persuades her to stay on for a while and, as she discovers what really happened to Le Rong, Ye Zi starts to identify with her plight.
After co-directing with twin brother Peng Shun 彭顺 [Oxide Pang] the firefighter drama Out of Inferno 3D 逃出生天3D (2013), Peng Fa 彭发 [Danny Pang], the less talented of the two, has returned to low-budget horror/mystery films with a vengeance, largely funded by Mainland companies. The best of the crop, which has so far included Blind Spot 探灵档案 (2015) and Delusion 妄想症 (2016), was the first, The Strange House, a 2015 psycho-horror with a small cast set in an old courtyard-style mansion. The biggest grosser of the batch – only a weedy RMB16.5 million, but okay for a modest Mainland horror – it benefits from careful direction and production values, plus solid performances by its two leads, young Mainland actress Xu Jiao 徐娇 and veteran Hong Kong character actor Zhang Zhaohui 张兆辉 [Eddie Cheung].
Xu, then 18, has had a wobbly career path so far, starting out at the age of 11 playing a boy opposite Hong Kong’s Zhou Xingchi 周星驰 [Stephen Chow] in the latter’s CJ7 长江7号 (2008) and then acting opposite a giant gorilla in the South Korean co-production Mr. Go 大明猩 (2013). Betweentimes, she’s had difficulty establishing a presence as an actress (Starry Starry Night 星空, 2011), though in House Peng makes good use of her rather blank looks and quicksilver smile, as a high-strung, slightly bolshy young woman who agrees to impersonate a dead lookalike for a few days in the countryside but gets caught up in ghostly visions and with hostile relatives.
The simpatico, nice-guy playing of Zhang, as the man who hires her, helps to sell the story on a genre level, leaving the rest of the cast to bitch as the greedy relatives who are after the titular mansion. Among them, 25-year-old actress Song Yi (one of the dance students in Forever Young 2015 栀子花开2015 , 2015) is the creepiest, alternating between sweetness and loathing. However, given the plot’s basic simplicity, it’s the production which ultimately sells the film, with a eerily atmospheric score by Wang Jianwei 王建威 (Out of Inferno 3D; Little Big Master 五个小孩的校长, 2015) and carefully composed widescreen photography by Mainland d.p. Zhang Ruigeng 张瑞赓. Neither fall prey to the usual horror hysterics. The Big Reveal – this being a Mainland horror, so there’s a rational explanation for everything – is unexpectedly sprung on the viewer and even makes sense in hindsight. Among the four writers is Huang Haohua 黄浩华, whose Hong Kong genre scripts include two Category III classics by director Deng Yancheng 邓衍成 [Billy Tang], Red to Kill 弱杀 (1994) and Casino 濠江风云 (1998).
The Chinese title means “The Six-Generation Ancient Residence”. The film is also known as Psychic on some English posters.
Presented by Beijing Magilm Pictures (CN), Beijing Monster Pictures (CN), Yunnan Skyhigh Tree Pictures (CN), Alpha Pictures (Beijing) (CN), Guangzhou Ying Ming Film (CN), Foshan Join Production (CN). Produced by Guangzhou Pinjing Film & TV Production (CN).
Script: Peng Fa [Danny Pang], Huang Haohua, Li Yongqin, Chen Pengzhen. Photography: Zhang Ruigeng. Editing: Li Yongqin. Music: Wang Jianwei. Art direction: Luo Xianhuo. Costume design: Ding Yu. Sound: Yi Xiao. Action: Zhang Zebin, Zhang Zhongquan. Visual effects: Xu Jian, Shi Wen (More Visual Production). 3-D: Feng Zichang, Wang Yujue (Digital Magic).
Cast: Xu Jiao (Ye Zi/Le Rong), Zhang Zhaohui [Eddie Cheung] (Le Zijun), Tian Zitian (wife of Le Zijun’s younger brother), Lu Siyu (Le Zijun’s younger brother), Song Yi (Nana, Le Zijun’s girlfriend), Bi Xiuru (Le Zijun’s mother), Ma Tengfei (Le Yongshan, Le Rong’s father), Wang Tan (Chen Changfeng, Le Rong’s mother), Lin Ziya (Le Yang, Le Rong’s younger brother).
Release: China, 24 Jul 2015.