The last few years have been an interesting time for the horror genre in Chinese cinema, with film makers venturing more and more into the realms of the sinister, while being held back by the limitations imposed by the censors on depictions of the ghostly and supernatural. Hong Kong helmer Herman Yau is certainly a man up for the task, with a fine pedigree in the genre, having been responsible for classics like “The Untold Story” and “Ebola Syndrome”, as well as several instalments of the lengthy “Troublesome Night” series. Unsurprisingly labelled as ‘psychological horror’, the film has a pair of popular stars in the lead in Fiona Sit (“The Bounty”) and Huang Xuan (“Driverless”), with support from actress Zhou Chuchu (“Dream Home”).
The film opens strongly, with Huang Xuan as Dong Zi, a man suffering from insomnia who one night sees a woman (Zhou Chuchu) in the opposite apartment building being stabbed and thrown off her balcony. With no sign of a body and with the flat having apparently been empty for some time, poor confused Dong Zi turns to his radio show psychologist girlfriend Yi Fan (Fiona Sit) for help, who naturally suggests hypnotising him to get to the bottom of things. After it transpires that he seems to be confusing fragmented memories and dreams with his nightly visions, the two of them decide to head to the remote Nine Mile Village, where as a child growing up he may have been a witness to an unsolved brutal murder.
“Nightmare” has a pretty similar setup to many other recent Chinese chillers, with the same kind of rural village setting and theme of resurfacing past crimes and guilt, which seem to be fast becoming genre favourites for horror films aimed at a modern urban audience. The film also shows the same kind of narrative trickery used to try and get round the censors, attempting to scare and horrify without ever showing anything disgusting or frightening, and steering clear of anything explicitly supernatural, going to great length to justify and ground its ghouls. Yau certainly does a better job than most on this score, with an interesting and entertaining narrative that keeps the viewer as disoriented as Dong Zi, deliberately being unclear as to whether certain things are real or imagined. With the last act packing in several shifts and twists, the film is inconclusive and ambiguous, though in a good way, and Yau holds the interest throughout, never being too manipulative.
Though light on scares, the film is nicely atmospheric, Yau employing the same use of eerie, lurid colours and soundtrack he did in his “Troublesome Night” entries – indeed, “Nightmare” does at times feel like an extend franchise episode. This definitely helps, and though the film may pull its punches, it at least looks and sounds like a horror, with a few decent semi-spooky set pieces and moments of special effects. Yau is very much one of Hong Kong and China’s better and most under-valued directors, and as always with his work the film is well-shot and makes good use of its production values. The film receives no small boost from having been shot on location rather than on the usual cheap looking sets, and there’s an overall air of quality which lifts it several notches above most of its peers. Both Huang Xuan and Fiona Sit also add a touch of class, both turning in respectable performances that, while not enough to really engage emotionally, do at least illicit some sympathy, if for no other reason than the viewer being as bewildered as they are.
“Nightmare” is undoubtedly the strongest and most enjoyable of the recent crop of Chinese psychological mystery horror type outings, mainly due to the efforts of the ever dependable Herman Yau. Though it would be going too far to accuse it of actually being a great film, it’s certainly much better than expected, and is entertaining enough in its own modest way.
Herman Yau (director) / Lihua Liang, Nanke (screenplay)
CAST: Xuan Huang … Hao Dong
Fiona Sit … Eva
Chu-chu Zhou … Luo xiaoyue