Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Starring Bingbing Fan, Leon Lai, Rene Liu
Directed by Hua-Tao Teng
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick to death of Asian films about ghosts. Though lately they’ve been getting more and more mature with directors actually trying new methods now and then, it all usually comes back to the same old thing: creepy female ghost wants revenge for some kind of injustice thrust upon her when she was among the living. and only one person is able to figure out what’s going on to try and stop her.
The Matrimony is a bit different from the rest of the crap that’s out there, though whether or not it’s enough to bring in new fans is up for debate.
For one, the setting is unique; Bejing, China in the 1930’s (which looked an awful lot like San Francisco in the same time frame, apparently). The story involves a film editor named Shen (Lai) who is deeply in love with his girlfriend, Manli (Fan). While traveling to meet him on her bicycle one busy day, she attempts to cross the street and is run down by a motorist, killing her instantly.
Shen is ruined by her death, moving all her belongings into one room of his large estate and locking it from the outside world. His mother is concerned for his well being, believing he is sick and needs someone to take care of him, so she convinces him to marry a girl named Sansan (Liu), who of course falls in love with him. How or why is never really explained as he comes off as a moody, temperamental asshole for the first third of the film, but love is a strange thing, isn’t it?
Sansan’s curiosity gets the best of her and she manages to get into the room full of Manli’s belongings, which brings Manli’s ghost out into the open. Rather than just relying on cheap scares and freaky imagery, her ghost seems more grounded and down to earth, striking up a deal with Sansan to let her possess her body so she can be physically close to Shen again and so he can love again. While it sounds like a win/win situation, things take a turn for the vengeful when Shen starts noticing Sansan on his own and is willing to start a new life, free of the torment he’s been living in since Manli died so suddenly.
It’s interesting because for the longest time you feel like maybe this ghost isn’t upset or angry like most and legitimately wants her former lover to be happy once again, but as “exposition lady” explains shortly before the third act kicks in, a spirit is a spirit and all they are at their core is selfish beings who only want to be alive again. From there the story starts following the same general pattern of all other J/K-horror films (this one’s unique simply because it’s Chinese), and when the film finally does come to an end, viewers will likely be more frustrated than anything else.
Overall The Matrimony is a very beautiful film; the time frame lends itself being more visually striking than a modern-day horror movie. It features some of the most prominent use of color to be seen in a film for a long time; indeed most of the setting of The Matrimony is greys and browns, but when Manli’s ghost appears, she’s clad in a very blatant red, the same red she was wearing the day she was killed. Chinese legends dictate to never trust a woman in red, a theme that’s carried throughout the movie through both women in various degrees.
At its heart, though, The Matrimony is very serious love story, so viewers will really have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it to its fullest potential. As is usually the case with Asian stories of love lost, they lay it on very thick to make sure that the tragedy of the situation is driven home to even the thickest-shelled romantics, which unfortunately does detract from the oppressive feel and scares The Matrimony attempts to build from the start.
I appreciate that someone else is taking a different approach to ghost stories than we’re used to here in the US, but ultimately The Matrimony still manages to fall into the same quasi-supernatural trappings in its final act (including the aforementioned frustrating ending), but it sure is a touching date movie if nothing else.
3 out of 5
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