MIDNIGHT BEATING (2010) short review

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The marketing for Zhang Jiabei’s Midnight Beating called it the first real horror film made in Mainland China, no small feat in itself considering Chinese censorship’s ‘no ghosts, no gore’ directives. The film ultimately plays by these rules, but the fact that it’s so un-scary and indeed, boring, cannot be solely attributed to content restrictions. It is quite simply direly written and limply directed, its story – about a hospital that is haunted by a murdering ghost, and whose grieving doctor (Simon Yam) and philandering psychologist (Francis Ng) hold pivotal secrets – unfolding with little to no urgency or atmosphere. Simon Yam’s poignant performance and Yasuda Fumio’s classy score stick out in a swamp of TV-grade production values, tired jump scares, deadening exposition and shrill emotional displays, not to mention Francis Ng’s bored face and a staggeringly stupid scene involving a website that allows visitors to watch their own memories of departed loved ones as videos. *

THE MAN BEHIND THE COURTYARD HOUSE (2011) review

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Before he found success with the excellent courtroom thriller Silent Witness, Fei Xing directed The Man behind the Courtyard House, which despite its high-profile cast went fairly unnoticed. Much like Silent Witness, it starts out with a fairly straightforward narrative, whose conclusion arrives a bit too soon to satisfy. Then it rewinds itself not once but twice, each time revealing a new layer that helps not only to make sense of what we saw, but also to see it in a new light. And so after a first segment in which we see a group of backpacking students (Eva Huang Shengyi, Yu Shaoqun, Zhang Kejia and Zhang Shuyu) find shelter in a old traditional house whose sole inhabitant is cold, mysterious Chen Zhihui (Simon Yam) who claims he’s a distant relative of the old couple that is supposed to live there. What follows is a rote slasher where Chen kills the backpackers one by one by banging a nail in their skull, with no apparent motive. But then the film backtracks twice, and we are introduced to his backstory, and people he met in the days before : the old couple who lived in the house, but also an affable state investigator (Chen Sicheng), a recently-widowed hotel owner (Zhang Jingchu) and a desperate but determined ex-con (Wei Zi), among others. Slowly, Chen’s story takes fascinating, poignant shape.

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