A (very) rare Chinese sci-fi horror film, Li Wei and Zhang Nan’s The Secret of Immortal Code is set in the middle of the 22nd century: the Rafael pharmaceutical company, headed by the enigmatic Doctor Yao (Zhao Lixin), claims to be close to perfecting a cure for cancer, and proposes to cryopreserve – for a price – patients in the final stages of the disease, so that they may survive until the cure is finally ready. Yet 20 years later, it seems no closer to delivering the promised drug, and families are suing for commercial fraud. Lin Ziqi (Liang Jing) is in the same situation: her cancer-stricken sister Yuqi (Landi Li) has been in cryo-sleep for 18 years. One day, she receives a notification that Yuqi has been unplugged for no reason, which gives her only a few days to live. When she confronts Doctor Yao about this, he invites her to join him on a sea expedition to the Arctic, when a Rafael research station may hold the key to finally perfecting the cure.

The Secret of Immortal Code has clearly been made on a shoestring budget, and yet it stands out from most recent Chinese science-fiction films (and there haven’t been many, with mostly Reset and Bleeding Steel coming to mind in the past two years) with a derivative yet strikingly expressionist aesthetic: Blade Runner-style cityscapes and starkly religious corporate interiors, a cargo ship whose shape and recesses evoke an spaceship out of Alien, and subtly steampunk touches reminiscent of Guillermo Del Toro: a surgeon in full garb looking like Kroenen from Hellboy, for example. But most of all, the film delights with its glorious use of darkly evocative black-and-white photography (by co-director Li Wei), a bold choice within a genre so new to the Chinese film industry. Clever, unnerving camera moves, solid production design (especially considering budgetary limitation) and a gloriously Herrmanesque – and thus old-fashioned – score also contribute to the exciting feeling of discovering a hidden gem, as for twenty minutes the film manages to intrigue with limited dialogue and a few powerful futuristic tableaux.

But soon comes the realization that this is not a hidden gem but merely, say, a hidden nicely-shaped pebble. Credited to five writers, the screenplay proves to be quite thin and, past the mid-point, heavy on thudding exposition. Various compelling strands of plot all merge into a fairly dull stalk-and-slash creature feature, which thankfully keeps its monster in the shadows, but doesn’t find much interesting to do with it, borrowing at times too heavily from Ridley Scott’s Alien and its better copycats. This is all the more unfortunate as Liang Jing, an actress too often given cartoonish roles and/or supporting parts, often in her husband Guan Hu’s films, here shines in the lead, a strong, sexy and maternal Ripley-inspired heroine, opposite Zhao Lixin who much like his Caucasian lookalike Michael Emerson, excels at ambiguity.

Long Story Short: Thinly-written and derivative yet visually gorgeous and rich in atmosphere, The Secret of Immortal Code is a step in the right direction for Chinese sci-fi as well as Chinese horror. **1/2

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