Monday 13 April 2009

The Heirloom (2005)

Director: Leste Chen
Stars: Terri Kwan, Jason Chang, Chang Yu-Chen and Tender Huang

This film has the dubious honour of being the one that's lived on my DVR for the longest: I'm watching on 12 Apr 2009 but I recorded it on 19 Aug 2007. It's a Taiwanese horror film, which makes it something new for me: the only Taiwanese films I've seen were decidedly not horror movies: Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman and Hou Hsiao Hsien's Millennium Mambo. It's directed by Leste Chen, his first film, though he's produced and directed another one since: a drama called Eternal Summer that seems to be much higher rated that this one. I should also add that it isn't based on the horror novel of the same name by Graham Masterton, instead being written for the screen by Dorian Li.

It's highly promising from moment one. The opening image is of a girl crawling along the floor under a whole host of hanging corpses. There's a noose waiting too, obviously just for her. We've already been treated to an intriguing folk custom before the credits rolled: that of hsiao guei or 'raising child ghosts'. Apparently it has to do with keeping foetuses in urns and feeding them the blood of their master to bring fortune or even to kill, depending on the inherent power. Of course, as with all the more familiar dark arts we know about in the west from H P Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley, there's always a price to pay for dabbling in them.

The heirloom of the title here is a house, an old one from the Japanese colonial era, that is left to James Yang by distant relatives. He's some sort of architect who has spent most of his life in England and he moves in with his girlfriend Yo who is a professional dancer. The house isn't in great shape but it's large and they look forward to gradually cleaning it up. I'm sure it won't be much of a surprise to find that strange things start happening, but in this instance they seem focus around a family shrine that has a lot of photos on the walls. There are lots of visions about people hanging and there's some connection to water. Midnight seems to be important also, as is a girl who walks around with a red blindfold on.

James and Yo are involved in this, living in the house, but naturally it's their friends that get impacted hardest: Yi-Chen disappears for evenings at a time, and returns utterly unaware of where she's been or what she's done, appearing upstairs without having entered the house. Cheng collapses in a bar and then dies at home, apparently drowned in his bathtub even though the cause of death may well be hanging by the neck. Even the cop investigating Cheng's death falls prey to the bizarre concept that falling asleep transports him back to the house.

There's a back story here that explains everything, but hardly any time is paid to it all and there are no real clues left for us to work it out by ourselves. There's a revelation at one point that there was a mass suicide there 25 years ago with only a sole survivor, but even then James seems to ignore it. The bad stuff happens to other people, after all. Yo is more interested in following up and she tracks down that one survivor to find the secret of the house, and we get the whole story all at once. Given that we were introduced to the folk custom at the centre of it all before the story ever begins, it's hardly a surprise when we find out how it's being used. It's a pretty cool concept, I'll give it that, but its promise is hardly realised and could have been so much more in more experienced hands.

That's the biggest thing I'll take away from this film: failed promise. It promises much from the outset but utterly fails to deliver, mostly through the writing. The actors are decent without being particularly memorable, the music is good and the visuals are professional: everything is perfectly capable here though nothing stands out. There are no great scares, shocks or standout shots. There's some clever tracking and the dilapidated house is a good set but one dilapidated building is hardly enough reason to watch a film.

It's the writing that's most at fault. The writing is what could have turned this from an average film into a really good one, but instead it doomed it average. Only at the end does it get interesting because that's the only time we're on unknown territory. Now we know the secret but like the characters we're watching, we don't know how to deal with the knowledge. We find ourselves in new locations: at a Buddhist shrine for dead children and at the airport as Yi-Chen prepares to leave Taiwan. I spent 75 minutes trying to keep attention and wondering why such a cool concept could fall so flat and then 20 more rivetted to the screen loving the freakiness that had found. If the whole film had been like these last ten minutes I'd be recommending it highly. As it is I'm recommending the finale and wishing you didn't have to wait as long as I did to get to it.

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