Mainland China doesn’t produce too much in the way of genre films, and even less that are of the supernatural persuasion. This has been especially true of late, with a recent directive from the notoriously strict State Administration of Radio, Film and Television actively discouraging anything fantastic or horrific. As such, the few that do make it to screens and past the disapproving glares of the censors are usually a matter of some interest. This is not to suggest that “The Deserted Inn” is a controversial affair in the least, as it follows a fairly standard romantic ghost theme. It was directed by Zhang Jing, one of the few dedicated genre helmers from the Mainland, who was previously responsible for the ghostly drama “Seven Nights”. This, his latest effort was based upon a novel by popular writer Cai Jun whose “Naraka 19” was also the subject of a recent cinematic adaptation.
The film follows a young songwriter called Meng Fan (played by Hong Kong idol Kenny Kwan, recently in Edmond Pang’s excellent “Trivial Matters” and the wacky “A Chinese Tall Story”) who finds himself unable to produce a follow up to his one hit song. After dumping his girlfriend He Ying (television actress He Mei Tian), he decides to act upon a strange invitation sent to his blog to visit a supposedly deserted inn in the remote countryside town of Huang Cun, hoping that the local legend of a singing female ghost from the Ming Dynasty called Yanzhi will provide him with the inspiration he desperately needs. Arriving at the inn, he is met by the rather odd owner Ouyang (Xie Shan), who not only tells him the full tragic tale of poor Yanzhi, but also informs him that her bed is actually in his room. Although this sounds like a great way to get his creative juices flowing, poor Meng Fan is soon plagued by weird visions and supernatural distractions. Matters are complicated further when He Ying shows up at the blatantly not deserted inn, and Ouyang’s behaviour takes a turn for the threatening.
“The Deserted Inn” is best thought of as a ghost story rather than as a horror film, with director Zhang aiming for atmosphere and mystery rather than actual scares. Although he does throw in a few cheap frights during the first hour, generally revolving around genre stalwarts such as bloody writing on walls, slamming doors and moving statues, most of the action is saved for the final act, when things do get a little strange. The film is low key in general, with few special effects and with Zhang relying more upon mood and subtle camera work to unsettle the viewer. This approach works quite well, and whilst the plot is a pretty familiar tragic supernatural romance, there is a valiant attempt at adding a little psychological depth.
This doesn’t quite come off, mainly due to the fact that Kwan is rather ineffectual in the lead role, with his character being too foppish and self absorbed to make for a compelling protagonist, though it does at least earn marks for effort. Similarly, there are enough surprise revelations to keep things interesting, with the subplot involving Ouyang being the strongest, largely since he all but walks around screaming ‘I have a dark secret’. Zhang plays with different perspectives quite effectively, keeping the viewer guessing as to what is actually happening and as to which of the various flashbacks and stories are true, and this helps to give the proceedings a gently dream like feel. The film is pretty melancholic throughout, though thankfully without ever getting too depressing, and although there does seem to be a moral message about love and fidelity in there somewhere, it never comes across as being preachy.
Detracting from the overall effectiveness is the fact that the central premise doesn’t quite hang together, primarily due to the inherent gullibility of Meng Fan – a supposedly deserted, legendary inn that can be booked over the internet and which offers hot water 24 hours a day? To be fair, the surrounding village is pretty quiet, and certainly makes for a gorgeous set, filled with crumbling traditional stone buildings, decaying wooden carvings, languorous moss and dripping water. The rural scenery is similarly impressive, with director Zhang putting the misty mountains and picturesque forests to good use, lending the film a bleak, isolated look.
The strong visuals give the film a real boost and a uniquely Chinese feel, and ensure that, although a little tame by the standards of horror films from other Asian countries, “The Deserted Inn” should certainly be enjoyed by anyone looking for gloomy, supernaturally tinged romance. Whilst not offering anything particularly original or startling, the film is well made and subtle and shows Zhang to be a genre director of some talent.
Zhang Jing (director)
CAST: Kenny Kwan, He Mei Tian, Law Ka Ying, Hong Jian Tao, Xie Shan, Ai Li Sen, Zhang Meng