In London, two young Chinese women (Zitong Wu and Zhu Lin) are studying art and design when they’re invited to stay at a country manor for a weekend to make some money working in a private film archive. When they arrive at the quiet estate, their host is an eccentric wheelchair bound person (Steve Edwin) who appears obsessed with Susu (Junjie Mao), a Chinese Opera star who lived and died there in the house. As the two girls stay in the house, things get stranger and stranger, as the past threatens to invade the present: the past of the two girls and the past of Susu, including the real reason she died.
I love a haunted house story, especially when the story feels a familiar but also fresh. And a large part of that is down to the characters. They’re not stock types but rather a cast of different originals. And in a way, they’re London types, a city where you can escape and build a life away from your comfort zone, a melting pot of all walks of life. The two girls are friends drawn together by both being Chinese, but as they point out to each other, they would not have ever met or been friends in China, due to one being wealthy and the other poor, one having opportunities and the other longing for impossible escape. I love that they’re both distinct characters, one out going, the other more reticent, one hard working, the other more free. Their relationship feels warm and close, but not simple. Their host is Shirley, whose voice sounds so classic and British, like a BBC show from the 70’s. Shirley is a man who dresses as a woman, and who is confined to a wheelchair, wandering the deserted halls of a house filled with objects belonging to people who are long gone. While the obsession with Susu at first feels just eerie and eccentric, it’s Susu herself, her spirit, and the feeling that the girls will not be able to leave the house that really builds the tension.
While a large part of the story takes place in the country house, it’s framed by the girl’s life in London. The city is displayed as a place of cobbled streets, narrow roads and terrace houses, a very old and beautiful city, the same city where Jack the Ripper did his dark work. The country manor on the other hand, is lush and green, little bridle paths leading to crumbling stone. Indoors, scones are at the ready, rooms are dark and wainscotted and hidden doors lead to dusty collections of memorabilia. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of town and country, and how like London, with it’s country retreats just a short trip from the winding narrow lanes of the city. The film is very beautifully shot, with an emphasis on slightly golden, cinematic visuals, lingering on faces and places flatteringly, creating mood and atmosphere.
That lingering sense is such a wonderful aspect of this film. It lingers like a ghost, like the scent of perfume in a closed up room, but it’s never dull or slow. The pace is even, unfolding really nicely, giving you just enough clues and just enough scares, but always focusing on people, place and story to create atmosphere. There is violence and death in this film, but they’re not used to carry the story. There are no jump scares or cheap tricks, but the quiet set against clever use of sound and music will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, as you wait to see what the next little twist will be.
It’s a film in the tradition of old, Victorian ghost stories, with beautiful young women in peril, a strange but beautiful house with an eccentric occupant, and a collection that hints of a deep darkness in the house, a ghost who refuses to stay buried. It’s a story that Wilkie Collins or Dickens would be familiar with. But it’s also very modern, with it’s focus on thoroughly modern characters, Chinese students, men who identify as women, and women who write for a living (how many Victorian women had to publish under male pseudonyms?). It’s not a racy horror, but a delightful, dark chiller, one that is both beautiful to watch, and satisfies while also being just surprising and original enough. Darkly enjoyable.