Though limited by notoriously tough censorship, the horror genre is slowly but surely finding its feet in Chinese cinema, with directors coming up with new and occasionally creative ways to work around the restrictions. “The Chrysalis”, marking the directorial debut of ad director Qiu Chu Ji, is a great example of this, a film which though clearly of the horror genre, also works in enough grounded psycho drama to keep things from straying too far into taboo supernatural territory. While this approach in itself is common in Chinese chillers, Qiu here seems to have been making more of an effort to combine the film’s horror and dramatic elements rather than simply using one to justify the other.
Taiwanese-French actress Sandrine Pinna (“Miao Miao”) stars as Wenxin, the film opening with her having been kidnapped by love rival Annie (Christa Yan) on valentine’s day. The film flashes forward three months, with Wenxin showing up by the side of the road in her underwear, with no idea of where she has been or what has happened. Returning to the man at the heart of the dispute, university teacher Luo Jia (Ren Quan, “Assembly”), she learns that Annie has also disappeared without trace. With the aid of Wu Guangming (Lee Wei, “Open to Midnight”), a young artist who turns up and claims she had been living in his flat, she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, strange events making her suspect that she has been possessed by the sinister spirit of her possibly dead kidnapper.
Modern Chinese horror really is hit and miss stuff, with many directors flailing around badly as they try to balance offering thrills while making sure that they don’t offend the censors by including anything that’s actually horrifying or supernatural – which not only tends to result in manipulative and unfocused plotting, but goes against the entire point of horror films in the first place. It’s with some relief then that “The Chrysalis”, though still a bit of a mess, is definitely a step in the right direction. Though most genre-savvy viewers will probably see its big twist coming, there’s still a lot of psycho-hysterical fun to be had along the way, Qiu Chu Ji managing to produce something which though far from frightening, is at least entertaining and daftly dark.
Points are won for a few flashes of originality, including the fact that there are none of the usual long haired ghosts on show, Wenxin’s visions of Annie being of the more grounded and visceral kind, and a bizarre final act which gleefully hurtles off the cliff and dives deep into whacked-out insanity. While none of it actually makes much sense in hindsight, with gaping plot holes and wild leaps in logic abounding, the film successfully holds the interest throughout, with some fairly clever use of changing perspectives and narrative trickery.
Though unsurprisingly the film never gets too nasty, it does at least have a bit more in the way of sex and violence than the average Chinese genre outing, giving it somewhat of a kick where it counts, with a few borderline gruesome scenes of threat and torture. This definitely helps to make the film more convincing and enjoyable than its peers, and Qiu does a decent job of at least suggesting some fairly nasty goings-on, even if many viewers will be left wanting more in this department. Also giving the film a boost in the entertainment stakes are some amusingly ripe performances from the two female leads, both Sandrine Pinna and Christa Yan doing some great eye-rolling, lunatic ranting and generally adding a touch of manic liveliness.
This is all enough to make “The Chrysalis” worth catching for genre fans or anyone with an interest in tracking the development of Chinese horror cinema and appropriately adjusted expectations. Though still relatively tame compared to its western cousins and at times bordering on silly rather than scary, there’s plenty here to enjoy, and the film is hopefully a sign of better and more substantially creepy things to come.
Chu-ji Qiu (director) / Chu-ji Qiu (screenplay)
CAST: Wei Lee … Wu Guangming
Sandrine Pinna … Guan Wenxin
Quan Ren … Luo Jia