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  The Matrimony  

(left) Rene Liu and Fan Bing-Bing, and (right) Leon Lai and Fan.
  Chinese: 心中有鬼
Year: 2007  
Director: Teng Hua-Tao  
Producer: Du Jiayi, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei  
Writer Yang Qianling, Zhang Jialu  
Cast: Leon Lai Ming, Rene Liu, Fan Bing-Bing, Xu Songzhi, Zheng Yuzhi  
The Skinny: An elegant, beautifully-mounted version of a story we've seen numerous times before. The actresses and the production values make this a decent watch, but those seeking new cinema experiences might wish to look elsewhere.  
by Kozo:

The Matrimony is one pretty film. This pseudo-supernatural Mainland drama features gorgeous art direction and costume design, and possesses many scenes that are staged far more beautifully than they really have to be. Cinematographer Mark Lee's work here is exemplary, and the score, bar a few loud shock notes, is evocative of the period and the genre. The movie itself isn't too bad either, though it's far outpaced by the film's technical achievements. You can't win them all.

Leon Lai is Junchun, a cinematographer in 1930s China who gets dealt a bad romantic hand. In the film's opening moments, Junchun's girlfriend Manli (the gorgeous and ubiquitous Fan Bing-Bing) gets clocked by a speeding car in a display of distracting fake CGI. She dies in his arms, turning him into a sullen, sometimes depressed individual. Fast-forward one year and he's entered into a marriage of convenience with Sansan (Rene Liu) a shy girl who hails from a family of needlework laborers. Sansan wishes to become closer to Junchun, but he won't have it. Obviously still attached to Manli, he treats Sansan rudely and shuts her out of his bedroom, and pretty much his life.

Sansan finds an ally in her quest to grow closer to Junchun - and it just so happens to be Manli. Her red-garbed spectre haunts their household, seemingly attached to her various former belongings, which Junchun keeps locked up in a room like some museum of lost love. Manli is a seemingly benevolent and kind ghost, who's heartbroken by Junchun's continued mourning. Her plan to rectify this involves possessing Sansan on occasion to attract Junchun's attention, plus giving Sansan tips on worming her way into Junchun's heart. Meanwhile, Sansan wonders if Junchun and Manli ever slept together. Cue ghost-human slumber party and catty female bonding sequences.

Unfortunately, there's no pajama party for the girls here. Though the above description makes the film sound like it could be a supernatural female bonding flick, The Matrimony is far too elegant and austere to be that touchy-feely. The film possesses supreme artifice, including wonderful settings and cinematography that are opulent without being egregious. The actresses carry the film quite well, bringing subdued, felt emotion to their opposing roles. Yes, they're opposing roles. Despite the girls acting like fast friends once the initial "but you're a ghost" introduction is out of the way, The Matrimony isn't some syrupy tale of female friendship across metaphysical borders. As the movie is quick to point out, ghosts are inherently bad - and Fan Bing-Bing's all-red outfit should be a massive clue for anyone who's seen an Asian horror film before. Sooner or later, Manli stops acting ultra-friendly, which means it's time for ghost-battling religious rites and even more spooky shock scares. Can Junchu break out of his Leon Lai-induced coma to ride to the rescue?

Mainland China is notorious for disallowing films with superstitious or supernatural content, even going so far as to ban them from distribution. The Matrimony seems to get around that by placing the film in the past (i.e. before the Cultural Revolution) and adding an epilogue that further distances the film's supernatural-themed narrative from the audience. What they do to make things China-friendly doesn't really hurt or help the film, but the extra story padding is questionable in its necessity. The film itself doesn't feel necessary either, as its story fails to resonate, despite spending lots of time attempting to do so with themes of commitment, unrequited love, and more. The female characters are decently developed, but Junchu is basically a male flower vase and Leon Lai really doesn't make much of an impact in the role. For all its emotional themes, The Matrimony is short on passion.

Still, the film is quite well made, and manages to deliver on its routine storyline in a fairly efficient manner. Director Teng Hua-Tao (Sky of Love) provides some decent tension, and Mark Lee's camerawork is excellent. Overall this feels like a quality production - which is why it also disappoints. When you put together these people (the cast and crew include many award-winners), one would hope for more than just a a pretty exercise in routine commercial artifice. Mainland China actually has the potential to produce more intriguing ghost movies, if they managed to use the country's history or culture to provide some uniqueness not seen elsewhere. Nowadays, ghost movies are so overdone that you need something - anything - to make each new film appear at least different from the umpteen films that preceded it. The filmmakers give it a good try, but The Matrimony only succeeds at being prettier and more elegant, and not scarier or better than your standard ghost film. (Kozo 2007)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese subtitles

images courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen