THE STRANGE HOUSE (2015) short review

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Danny Pang’s sixth film not to be co-directed by his brother Oxide (though only his third without any official involvement whatsoever from the latter), The Strange House slipped completely under the radar in its summer 2015 China release. The set-up is reasonably interesting: Ye Zi (Xu Jiao) is a young hairdresser with money problems. Just as she is threatened with eviction, she is approached by Le Zijun (Cheung Siu Fai), a psychologist who makes her a strange offer: his mother is in the throes of death, and all her family is with her except one, Le Rong, who died a year ago and to whom Ye Zi bears a striking resemblance. Everyone kept Le Rong’s death a secret from the matriarch, fearing the tragic news would precipitate her illness, but now in her final days she’s asking for her granddaughter. Thus for a generous sum of money, Ye Zi is to impersonate Le Rong and bring closure to the dying woman. She accepts, but once in the family house she’s faced with bizarre hostility from the rest of the family, and plagued with visions of a dead boy. After an interesting and fairly unsettling start, and despite nicely ambiguous performances from Xu Jiao and Cheung Siu Fai, The Strange House quickly devolves into the usual broth of jump scares, belabored exposition (has a person ever died mysteriously without leaving a detailed diary behind?) and censorship placating: the SARFT‘s “no supernatural elements” rule means the film ends with the same old twist generally used in Mainland Chinese horror to justify the apparent presence of ghosts. To its credit, the film does add a clever narrative and visual footnote to this twist, as if to compensate for how derivative and contrived it is. **

WU DANG (2012) short review

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Vincent Zhao’s unremarkable comeback continues with this barely lukewarm adventure in which he plays a professor/adventurer in the Indiana Jones mould. He is seeking seven mythical treasures, and a vital clue leads him to Mount Wu Dang, where a martial arts tournament is taking place in the famous monastery of the same name. There’s a good cast, with martial arts actors Fan Siu Wong and Dennis To as Wu Dang disciples, Xu Jiao as Zhao’s daughter, the ubiquitous Yang Mi as a rival adventurer, and Shaun ‘son of Ti Lung’ Tam as a gangster. Corey Yuen provides the action, which is sometimes palatable (a balletic martial arts duet with Zhao and Yang taking on Tam’s men is particularly nice) but often forgettable and tame : who wants to see pretty Yang Mi fight kiddy Xu Jiao is one of the lamest film tournaments ever ? There’s no sense of adventure (the bad CGI doesn’t help matters), and the romantic subplots are either massively creepy (40-years-old Fan and 14-years-old Xu aren’t exactly a match made in heaven) or simply cold (Vincent Zhao and Yang Mi have no chemistry whatsoever). A failure, but in an likable kind of way. **