“The Heirloom” marks the debut of Taiwanese director Leste Chen, who had previously worked on music videos for the likes of Joey Yung and Eason Chan, a fact which is probably enough to start alarm bells ringing. Fortunately, the director manages to transcend his roots, and has produced a decent fright flick which, though too flawed and too unambitious to amount to very much, is at least far better than it has any right to be. The film has certainly proved popular in the domestic market, being one of the biggest box office hits in Taiwan of 2005, though this may be down to the general lack of quality genre cinema more than anything else.
The plot begins as James (Jason Chang, “Formula 17″) inherits a huge, creepy house from his mysterious family, who died twenty years previously in a mass suicide. Possibly as a result of never having seen a horror film in his life, he decides to move in, bringing along his ballet dancer girlfriend Yo (Terri Kwan, who won a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Golden Horse awards for “Turning Left and Turning Right”). As expected, the house soon appears haunted, with the usual strange noises in the attic, half seen figures lurking around, and James being tormented by portentous nightmares of the past. After a number of deaths and disappearances, James and Yo finally decide to investigate and uncover the sinister truth about his family, discovering an awful curse from which there may be no escape.
This is all painfully familiar and predictable stuff, although Chen does manage to work in a fairly interesting and disturbing back-story, most of which is revealed in an awkward scene in which a conveniently discovered surviving relative tells all. This helps to keep the viewer interested, as do a few inspired moments of unexplained weirdness, mostly lifted from the likes of “Dumplings” and “The Grudge”. The film which “The Heirloom” would probably most like to be is the Korean “A Tale of Two Sisters”, from which Chen borrows the psychological nuances and production design.
As with its inspiration, “The Heirloom” has a wonderfully ornate, gothic antique look to it, with some nicely subdued colours and a good use of shadows. The house itself is an impressively gloomy creation, with an oppressive, stagnant atmosphere which nicely conveys the feeling of dark secrets rotting away in hidden rooms. Chen’s direction is stylish, without relying on the usual technical trickery and fast editing which those with his background usually seem to employ, and the film’s creepy visuals are its strongest point.
Unfortunately, Chen has little idea how to handle even the most basic of scares, and he consistently misses the target in terms of frightening the viewer. All too often he employs the most tired cliché of the genre, from cats in cupboards to hands suddenly reaching into the frame. Matters are not helped by the fact that the film is far too sedate for its own good, and Chen shows unnecessary restraint in avoiding showing any of the more grotesque aspects of the story, to the point that the fates of several characters remain unclear.
As a result, the film is rather sluggish and lacking in real thrills, being what could be kindly referred to as a ‘slow burner’. However, instead of building to a climax, it actually winds down gradually towards the end, with most of the action, such as it is, taking place in the first half. Since the characters themselves are decidedly uninteresting, and the cast sadly devoid of any charm, the viewer may well find their concentration waning long before the film meanders to its long sign-posted conclusion.
Overall, “The Heirloom” is a frustrating experience, mainly as Chen is quite obviously a talented director working with blatantly second string material. Though it is not a bad film as such, and still manages a fair amount of eeriness despite the fact that nothing of interest actually happens, it is most likely to be enjoyed only by genre diehards or those unfamiliar with the tired routines of the modern Asian ghost story.
Leste Chen (director) / Dorian Li (screenplay)
CAST: Terri Kwan, Jason Chang, Yu-chen Chang, Tender Huang, Yi-Ching Lu