Matrimony, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/14/07 11:47:59

"Three's a crowd, especially with only two bodies to go around."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: "The Matrimony" takes the gothic romance out of storage, puts a (relatively) modern coat of paint on it, and lets it loose. The result is surprisingly appealing: A ghost story that for the most part delivers everything this sort of film should be while at the same time feeling new and exciting as opposed to played-out. It falters a little toward the end, but the meat of the story is prime stuff.

Xu Manli (Fan Bingbing) is a stylish modern woman in 1930s Shanghai: She's got a Louise Brooks haircut, a job as a disk jockey playing jazz on a local radio station, and she knows her boyfriend, cinematographer Shen Junchu (Leon Lai) is about to propose to her. Just before he can, though, she's killed when a car plows into her on her bicycle, killing her instantly.

A year later, Junchu's mother has arranged a marriage to country girl Sansan (Rene Liu), but he shows her no affection, saying he will never think of her as more than a guest in his house - whose attic is filled with Manli's things. It's while investigating this that Sansan encounters Manli's ghost, who proposes a deal: Seeing Junchu sad hurts her too, and when Manli touches someone as a spirit it makes them ill. If Sansan allows Manli to possess her body on occasion, Manli will teach her how to make her husband happy. Sansan agrees - she really does love him - and at first it seems to work, but Sansan should have realized that deals with spirits always have a higher price than appears at first glance.

The basic story here wouldn't seem too far out of place if it were set in a stone mansion somewhere out in the foggy English countryside - big house, new young wife, jealous ghost, attic filled with old memories covered in sheets. Instead of being set in a remote place bound by restrictive traditions, though, it takes place in a bustling, prosperous city: The house is well-lit and full of modern amenities such as radios and even a film-editing station, Sansan is an active participant in her story rather than just a naif assaulted by the forces around her, Manli is an independent woman rather than someone who only exists as Junchu's one time lover. The costumes and production design are sumptuous: Shanghai looks like an exciting place that would naturally produce someone like Manli, the house is both intimidating and a place Sansan would want to become her home. The flashbacks of how Junchu and Sansan met are perfect, too, with a snow that is both a fitting backdrop to what Sansan considers a magical first meeting and a reminder of her humble origins. Rene Liu's performance in those scenes is especially important, since otherwise a modern audience could look at Sansan's arranged marriage as a job and think less of her; instead, we want Junchu to really love her, not just treat her better because she's nice and also thrust into an uncomfortable position.

What makes the film's romance, and through it the ghost story, so intriguing is that we're inclined to like all three of the film's main characters: Manli is exciting; Sansan is not as sophisticated but absolutely genuine in her love; and while we cringe early on at how Junchu treats Sansan, we're willing to forgive it for the awful way he saw her die and how he later eases up on her. All three act there parts well, and it's an especially good job by Leon Lai because ninety minutes is not a lot of time for an audience to believe that he could love both these women without feeling one or the other is being short-changed. There's material and performances for a good romantic drama here without the horror elements. Credit Fan Bingbing for making the living Manli and the ghostly one very interesting variations on the same character.

That's also due to how well writers Yang Qianling and Zhang Jialu establish their story's mythology without burdening the audience with a lot of rules. They've got a character whose job is to fill Sansan and the audience in on the specifics, and I wish I could find the name of the actress playing the family's servant because she does a great job of making that necessary but awkward character work. She's very casual and assured in how she handles the rites needed, and friendly rather than haughty about how Young People Should Respect the Old Traditions. Her explanation to Sansan about how spirits aren't good or evil, but like wild beasts, deftly allows us to reconcile the charming living Manli and the very dangerous ghost without short-changing either. The film is appropriately eerie, but also allows the characters to fight for what they want.

There are a few problems, of course: Manli's death scene features some special effects work that is not ready for prime time; the way Manli's seemingly boneless body bounces between two cars and flies through the air provoked a few giggles from the audience. There's a reason "digital stuntmen" are mostly used in backgrounds and long shots. I think the movie might have been better if it ended a few minutes earlier, as the finale puts a cap on the story but isn't really what the movie had been building toward; we're not invested in getting to where we wind up going.

Of course, the way that ending is framed allows for the possibility of ignoring it and just enjoying the story that has come before - a story that works a lot better than I'd been expecting it to.

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