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The Heirloom or Zhai bian (2005)

The Heirloom or Zhai bian has one simple but elegant idea I can’t off-hand remember encountering before in a supernatural horror film. Allowing for my advancing years, this makes the film slightly more interesting. The rest of the film is relatively prosaic and, at times, a little obscure but, on balance, just about worth watching if you’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Let’s start with a little background about Taiwanese superstitions. Over the generations, a family may make agreements with ghosts (or spirits of ancestors, if you prefer). This particular version is called hsiao guei. In return for a sacrifice of some kind, the supernatural force delivers wealth, status and everything else an upwardly mobile family could desire including losses by those opposing the family. These faustian arrangements tend to work well for many years but, if anything should go wrong, the consequences can be terrible. Welcome to the world of the haunted house with fringe benefits.

Jason Chang

 

A part of the problem for films of this type is the need to provide a house that looks inherently threatening — for those directors who want to cheat, you can play against expectations and have a modern, well-decorated home. In this case, we have a house of size, apparently built during the Japanese occupation and now showing its age with peeling paint. Good to see the electricity still working. Anyway, with little or no reconstruction work, our happy couple move some furniture in and then all we have are a repeated set of camera angles of long, wide corridors upstairs and quite homey spaces downstairs. It just looks a little rundown and tired. It says a great deal about Taiwanese culture that such a large building can stand unoccupied for twenty years and not have any broken windows or squatters (other than the supernatural type, of course).

 

So James (Jason Chang) gets news while in England that he has inherited the family home. This apparently comes as a surprise. He claims not to have realised there was a family home to inherit. So, when he returns to Taiwan, he’s playing the innocent and, after some discussion, he invites a girl, Yo (Terri Kwan) whom he has been distantly courting for some time, to move into this house. This is all really weird (in the non-threatening sense of the word). She’s famous in modern dance and already has a ticket to fly off the island, but unexpectedly turns up at the house with her luggage and announces she doesn’t need a lift to the airport (big hint there). I hope she got a full refund on the ticket.

 

They have two friends, Ah-Tseng (Tender Huang) and Yi-Chen (Yu-chen Chang) who encourage the relationship, but have reservations about the house. As a journalist, Yi-Chen is interested in an upstairs room that the family apparently used for praying to their ancestors. She takes photographs and researches the history of the house. Curiously, she then finds herself waking up inside the house. It doesn’t seem to matter where she is when she falls asleep. It’s a “beam-me-up, Scotty” moment of relocation. Ah-Tseng sets the theme of hanging signalled in the film’s poster. While visiting another city, he’s having a bath in his hotel room when he finds himself suddenly elevated into the air without any apparent support. This is baffling to the police who cannot find a rope nor explain how he could have hung himself. An inspector therefore comes to discuss the death with James and Yo, suggesting a full-scale murder investigation is in progress.

Intrepid journalist (Yu-chen Chang) shows research skills to Terri Kwan

 

At this point, the relocation mechanisms becomes more clear. It seems that at midnight, the house can reach out to others who are connected to it or family members. These people can go to sleep and then wake inside the house. When this physically moves the police inspector, the next night he tries an experiment and handcuffs himself to his bed. Unfortunately, the force with which he’s transported rips off his hands and he bleeds to death on the ground floor of the house. After that, everyone accepts weird shit is going on but, despite the police surveillance equipment misbehaving every time James walks past, no-one takes serious action. Just imagine the likely reaction from the police in the West. One of their finest leaves hands and cuffs in his bedroom at home, and turns up dead in what everyone says is a haunted house miles away. Health and safety people from the government would close the house, CSI would be on the job, the couple would be arrested and thrown in jail, and the news media would park television cameras all round to catch the return of the couple from prison cells the next time the clocks strike midnight. I’m entertained by this idea and wish the script by Dorian Li, had explored it more effectively. As it is, we simply see the phenomenon several times and then the director, Leste Chen, moves on as, first Yi-Chen excavates old newspaper articles out of the archives, and then an unsuspected aunt of James is discovered in a mental institution. This old biddy is remarkably lucid and fills in the gaps in the ponderous backstory. Now we’re into the final reel which I understand, but think is a little weak. In any event, for it to work, there should be a formal marriage between James and Yo. Otherwise, without a will, Yo presumably could not inherit the house.

 

This all means The Heirloom or Zhai bian starts quite well but then runs out of steam as the script refuses to develop with any shred of credibility. This is a tragic failure. There was a wonderful story waiting to be told as the police and modern science grapple with an ancient superstition about bottled foetuses. With the couple just being left to fend for themselves, the director is allowing the idea of the house to exclude the real world’s natural reaction and producing an obviously silly ending as the indifferent police have no interest in probing who might be responsible the final deaths.

 

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