CAPSULE: MATRIMONY [XIN ZHONG YOU GUI] (2007)

AKA The Matrimony

DIRECTED BY: Hua-Tao Teng

FEATURING: Rene Liu, Fan Bingbing,

PLOT:  The ghost of a woman who died moments before her lover proposed to her contacts his new bride with an offer to help her thaw the heart of the groom who still pines for his lost love.

Still from Matrimony (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite its (needlessly) weird ending, Matrimony is a standard-issue ghost story for the majority of its running time.

COMMENTS: If you have a yen for an atmospheric, timeless romantic ghost story that delivers a few mild shivers, then you may want to try out Matrimony—but be prepared for a bumpy road.  Set in Shanghai in what we might guess is the 1930s or 1940s, the story begins when hero Junchu sees his radio hostess lover Manli run down by a car before his eyes just moments before he could propose to her.  Understandably upset by the lack of closure to the relationship, he becomes a recluse, but agrees to an arranged marriage with subservient young Sansan under pressure from his sick mother.  Sansan loves Junchu but he spurns her, lost in his memories of Manli and his tortured thoughts of the life they might have shared.  After half an hour of setup accompanied by bumps in the night, forbidden basements and half-glimpsed apparitions, Manli’s spirit appears to Sansan and offers her a bargain that may help heal Junchu’s broken heart.  It’s an intriguing proposal, but unfortunately an exploration of the emotional entanglements that might have this arisen from complicated menage a trois between two living people and one dead one is ignored in favor of a predictable horror scenario.  Matrimony is a movie that keeps promising to turn into a very good one, but never quite fulfills its vows.  Although sometimes over-dramatic and heavy on the blue filter, the cinematography (by Wong Kar Wai collaborator Ping Bin Lee) is generally gorgeous—and sometimes magical, as in a flashback in a snowy provincial alley lit by paper lanterns and New Year’s fireworks, or the underwater ritual where Sansan breathes her living spirit into the ghost bride in a bathtub.  But the movie’s visual triumphs alternate with some painfully clumsy effects, most notably a supposedly shocking and tragic accident that’s one of the most unintentionally funny vehicular homicides ever filmed.  Since this unfortunate incident occurs at the very beginning of the story, it takes the movie a while to shake the aura of amateurism.  To its credit Matrimony does overcome this misstep and draw you back in to the story with its strong characters, but it ends on a weak decrescendo with a tired “the monster must be destroyed” climax followed by a mystifying “was it all a dream?” coda.  Although the ending is by far the weirdest card Matrimony plays, there are a couple of problems with it.  First, it comes out of left field—there’s nothing in the rest of the film to suggest we’re watching a mindbender.  More importantly, the twist adds nothing to the story dramatically, thematically or emotionally.  It simply undoes what we thought we knew about the principals, rather than expanding on their characters or forcing us to see events in a new light.  To give you an idea of the typical viewer’s response to this needlessly ambiguous closing, as of this writing there are currently two threads on the movie’s dedicated message board on IMDB, one titled “ending?” and the other “what kind of ending was that?”  It’s unfortunate that the movie, which does a lot right in the middle, puts its weakest moments at the very beginning and the very end, where they’re most likely to be remembered.  For better or worse, Matrimony is a sometimes rewarding, frequently frustrating experience.

Matrimony is a rare example of a horror film from mainland China; despite the genre’s popularity in the rest of east Asia and in the formerly independent province of Hong Kong, the Chinese government apparently considers scare flicks a bad investment and/or a bad influence.  Though released under Palisades Tartan’s “Asia Extreme” label with a misleadingly gruesome cover image of a wedding band slipped onto a severed hand, Matrimony is far from extreme.  It’s closer to an art film than a typical J-horror or K-horror.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film does toss us a ringer at the end, an ambiguous but strangely satisfying little coda that suggests Teng might have been more interested in playing a metaphysical card than telling a love story or a ghost story all along.”–Tom Becker, DVD Verdict (DVD)

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