10 February 2007 | DICK STEEL
A Nutshell Review: The Matrimony
I usually get perturbed when I watch movies with Hong Kong actors, because our Speak Mandarin campaign here dictates that these movies if in Cantonese have to be dubbed into Mandarin. Add to the fact that most times, the audio and lip movements on screen rarely sync, besides the frequent use someone with a poor voice quality that results in the stars coming across with squeaky or irritating voices. No such situation in this Chinese horror movie production because the cast are speaking in Mandarin, and this somehow earns some brownie points.
The Matrimony, like the name implies, focuses a lot more on relationships and love, with the supernatural angle adding that extra dimension to complicate matters. It is not a horror movie per se, but a tragic love story that has its characters perpetually stuck with their various issues. Leon Lai stars as cinematographer Shen Junchu, a man who can't forget his true love, living in a state of denial and guilt. Fan Bingbing plays Xu Manli, that love of his who now belongs to the netherworld, but still trying her best to make contact, and rounding up the main cast is Rene Liu as Sansan, the present wife of Jinchu, stuck in a loveless unconsummated marriage, looking too for ways to reach out to him.
While there are moments initially where the usual complimentary attempts at scaring the audience are put through the motions, like creaky doors, quick edits, camera pans and sudden appearances, these tactics are soon abandoned when the story decided to contrast that affections of these two women have for their man. It's about unattainability, and the methods employed to try and bridge that gap. To Manli, it is obvious that her appearance and touch will harm Junchu, and for Sansan, it's clear that nursing that crush you have without that emotional connection made both ways, is futile. So a pact between them is made, at first seemingly to benefit Junchu, but later revealed to be much more than meets the eye.
There's nothing fancy to the story as it plays out rather ordinarily, but to its credit it stays coherent, and brings about the storytelling days of old. There isn't any twist save for what I deem as cop-out wrapper scenes which, if you ignore them being used as bookends, actually makes for a refreshing experience given that horror movies these days are always so clichéd with the unexpected (and usually disappointing) ending. The narrative rarely gets over the top or too full of itself, and thus the beauty in its simplicity.
But there is nothing simple in terms of production values. The film sets are lush and gorgeous, and no effort made to try and match the authenticity of yesteryears, making it a beautiful film to look at. The only thorn that marred the visual spectacle, was a crucial scene, which I thought could have either be done away with, or done conventionally. Instead, it decided to use visual effects, and it was badly done and cheesy. Not that the quality of the effects were limited, as later scenes were done to perfection, but I guess for this particular one, some quality control was abandoned. The movie started off rather slow but thankfully picked up the pace as it moved along, and you won't feel bored as your eyes will be admiring almost everything on set in the scene.
I deem Rene Liu as having the most to do here, as surprisingly, much of the story revolves around her character Sansan, also in having the richest backstory created amongst the three, thus attempting to challenge her acting range. Leon Lai was stoned for most parts, while Fan Bingbing was largely scheming, given the age old superstition that any spirit clad in red is the most vicious.
Given Valentine's Day just around the corner, I'd probably stick my neck out to say that this makes a decent date movie too, despite the secondary subject of spirits and ghostly possession. Just remember not to play with fire, that rarely is there a free lunch, especially when the dealmaker isn't from this part of existence.