Very loosely – and somewhat tastelessly – based on real-life events (the massacre of a whole family in Fujian province in 2014), Park Yu-hwan’s The Mysterious Family follows Miao Miao (Ariel Lin) a young student who one night is beaten and raped by a mysterious stranger (Blue Lan). This leaves her traumatized, dependent on medication and uncommunicative to her parents (Jiang Wu and Kara Hui) and brother (Xiao Chen). One Christmas Eve, upon returning home after training for a marathon, she witnesses her family being murdered by the same man who assaulted her months ago; yet she suddenly wakes up, as if from a vivid nightmare, on the running track where she had been practicing in the afternoon. But as she goes home, her family is again murdered by the same man, with subtle changes to the situation. And again Miao Miao wakes up on the running track. Stuck in a nightmarish loop, she must figure out how to save her family.

As a horror spin on Groundhog Day, The Mysterious Family beat Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day by several months (several years if you take into account that it was shot in late 2014), but doesn’t take the concept to such playful extremes. It’s a very serious, relentlessly grim affair, its only traces of humour wholly unintended: a key accident scene presents a Looney Tunes-level chain reaction, and there’s some unfortunate, face-palming horror film behavior: a killer is tracking you in a crowd? seek refuge in a dark alley way of course. You suspect there’s a killer in your house? Why, simply light a single candle and go from room to room! And as in so many of the horror films that rely on their lead character’s narratively untrustworthy perspective, Park Yu-hwan’s script too often makes up its own rules, quickly forsaking any inner logic in favor of quick thrills, until a twist ending that is both slightly predictable and emotionally indigestible.

Still, it’s a technically very competent film, with an interesting muted color palette by cinematographer Choi Chan-min and an enjoyably creepy score by Bong Jun-suk. But what truly keeps it together is Ariel Lin’s impressive performance: she masterfully conveys degrees of sadness, anger, helplessness, and ultimately, resilience, that are worthy of a much better film. And while Jiang Wu and Xiao Chen are a bit shortchanged, Kara Hui is expectedly excellent, generating the film’s few truly affecting moments whenever she interacts with Lin.

Long Story Short: A competent horror thriller, The Mysterious Family too often relies on a horror film tropes and a malleable inner logic, but strong turns by Ariel Lin and Kara Hui keep it afloat. **

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