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Review © Tyler Robbins, 2007.
Directed by Lest Chen, 2005, 97 minutes, starring Terri Kwan, Jason Chang, Yu-Chen Chang, Tender Huang, and Yi-Ching Lu.

I view a lot of Asian films during the great majority of my down time (from my busy social schedule, of course), but very rarely do I even bother watching Taiwanese films because, in all honesty, I've just never run across any that interest me.  But The Heirloom, known in its native land as Zhai Bian, sort of struck me as a surprise.  I'd already heard some positive things about it from a penpal of mine, but seeing Tartan throw it onto the shelves of my local movie rental shop did nothing but pique my interest further.  If a major distributor of Asian extreme cinema in North America and the UK sees fit to release a film, it must not be that awful, right?  Well... something like that. 
 
As far as director Lest Chen and writer Dorian Li go, this is their only film that seems to have had any semblance of a Western release, so I have nothing to go by on any previous quality (or lack thereof) on either's part.  I will say for Mr. Chen that the direction of the film is a step above its peers - it's not nearly so terrible that it apes from other films ad nauseum, although it's not terribly original.  The writing is: adequate.  I will say both Chen and Li were extremely fortunate to have a capable young cast (Tender Huang's forgettable performance aside) to carry the material to its lofty level, and lucked up in the house that absorbs the majority of the setting of the film.  Do I have any misgivings about the film?  Of course.  I wouldn't be a jaded film reviewer if I didn't.  But it wasn't bad.  And seeing as I've stayed up many a night crying regretfully into my pillow over yet another spent evening watching another awful Asian horror film, I guess that's saying something. 

Synopsis

I'll keep this brief: A wealthy playboy inherits a house.  His girlfriend-cum-fiancée is a member of a (interpretive, it appears) dance troupe, and resists moving in with him at first.  They have two friends in their upper-class clique, one respectively of each gender, who help the plot along when it needs it.  Eventually she moves in because of love (or something), and then odd things happen.  Creepy atmosphere, weird deaths, complicated story about Shocking! Foetus! Ghosts! and cut to ending.  Fin. 
 
Alright, the film does have (slightly) more depth than I give it credit for.  I came into this film expecting a murder-by-numbers style schlock film, which thankfully didn't happen.  The wealthy playboy in question - and I guess he's an architect or something, he does have a lot of blueprints lying around, but my grandmother who watched it with me said it's more exciting to pretend he's really a burglar planning his next robbery - is James (Jason Chang), the second-to-last living heir of a formerly prosperous family.  The family, known for their riches, sent James off to China, it seems, as a young lad.  Why?  Well, it appears, friends, they were in the business of raising ghosts.  Child ghosts.  Sometimes almost-embryonic child ghosts.  And it seems that doing so would supposedly give them good luck.  To which child ghosts have said: no, sir.  Sike on James' family! 
 
His main squeeze, Yo (probably the strongest performance in the film, given by the very lovely and stylish Terri Kwan) is a beautiful dancer/actress type with mesmerizing hair who appears to be doing well for herself.  She's doing what she wants like a modern girl can - she even wears trousers! - and she's thinking of spending time abroad again, which of course conflicts with boyish James' plans to have her live with him so she can be kept.  Their friends, female reporter Yi-Chen (Yu-Chen Chang) and male-who-does-something-involving-modelling-for-a-living-I'm-sure Ah-Tseng (played by Tender Huang all made-for-TV-style like he wants) kind of just hang around, saying things at plot crucial moments, but otherwise staying out of the way until another plot point comes up.  Strange things, though, do begin to happen (I told you!) as soon as Yo moves in with James, and suddenly all four find themselves being drawn back into the house.  Every night.  At midnight.  Spooky doin's abound. 

Cut to a murder of one of the four, and suddenly the game is changed - the house is cursed.  But how?  But why?  Well, James it seems is content to let awful things happen while he pats his pretty lady friend on the head, but Yo is having none of it (you go girl, my grandmother told the television during my initial viewing of The Heirloom) and she seeks out the truth about James' awful, awful family and their awful, awful lives.  What will happen with these discoveries?  Will the curse be broken?  What does having an heir to this family have anything to do with dead babies?  Well, watch it, but you know I'm not promising you any sort of conclusions here, guys.  I'm just saying, this is pretty much it. 
 
Is the film bad?  I know you're wondering, you're just begging to know.  No.  Not exactly.  But it's not great, nor does it try to be.  My first reaction was that it was a less-thought-out Taiwanese version of A Tale Of Two Sisters, but after letting my steam fizzle down (and let me tell you, the last ten minutes had me steaming but good), I decided otherwise - that film attempted to be a traditional, almost classy ghost affair, while this one made no qualms about it playing up two genres at once - the Western teen-ghost story (insert twenty-somethings actually playing their age for once), and the glossy, slick Asian folk tale à la Ju-On: The Grudge. What The Heirloom definitely attempts to be above all else, though, is stylish, and it's success as such is really up to the viewer to decide.  I'm not sure if it's simply a trend that's currently big in Taiwan, but the female leads wore some of the most indulgent and appealing fashions I've seen in an Asian film in some time - the oversized trousers and pea coats really added a feeling that these characters were not ordinary middle-class denizens, but on the cusp of the elite.  And the way they relax, how they socialize and talk, and even how they group themselves has an almost 1940's American, country club WASP feel, as the men and the women separate themselves by gender in conversation and in lifestyles.  The rest of the film's details, though, are up for a wide myriad of interpretations.  From the scenery to the music to just about the whole thing, it seems like it's flooded with both colour and activity, which gives the viewer a lot to absorb.  A lot of the story, too, is force-fed to the audience.  A trip by Yo to her husband's only surviving aunt yields basically an entire family history of horror in a monotonous, easily thrown-out conversation between two actresses who are doing their bests with the material they've been given.  Do you enjoy having your films recited to you instead of acted out?  Then the third quarter of The Heirloom is just for you! 

All joking aside (even though I wasn't really joking), as for the conclusion - it need not take a brain surgeon to pick apart that ending.  Nay, I myself whittled it down quite easily - too many eggs, one basket.  It wasn't a terribly bad end to the film, but that's because the film itself didn't try to elevate its story to begin with.  I don't know, I just find myself infuriated (Hulk angry!) when I'm shown a ridiculous amount of flashbacks in a film.  In a television series it's still cheap, but acceptable considering the vast periods of time a television show can take place across.  But in the context of a film, by god, it's not even a couple of hours!  And that's another thing - for a film that's just over an hour and a half, I felt like it lasted two if not more.  It was drawn out for no other reason than to, I suppose, get it over that ninety-minute mark.  It's a shame because the basic idea, and its opening forty minutes, aren't awful in the least - it's a well-begun project that simply got out of hand, it appears.  There are brilliant ideas that are presented in the film, too - the child-ghost story, something not particularly mentioned in other cultures, gives a new and original spin on the traditional haunted house tale.  And a scene involving Yo and James returning one of the deceased foetuses to a Buddhist resting place for dead children added just the pinch of cultural foundation this film needed after it's glossy, fake-Hollywood start.  But the follow-up never really, you know, followed up.  A lot of great ideas are shown here, but none, and I mean not one, is given the dignity it deserves in the end. 
 
On the whole, I'd say that I probably feel dissatisfied with the film not because it was a bad movie (because, let me stress again, it wasn't that bad, and it held me until the final thirty minutes, or ten hours, depending on your views of time), but I was disappointed because I expected something more.  Obviously someone felt the need to introduce this to Western audiences or it wouldn't have had such a prominent Region 1 release, but what I can't figure out exactly is why.  I suppose it might just be Tartan's token Taiwanese horror film.  Maybe I'm being prickly, but I'm simply tired of watching a film that presents what amounts to a ghost story than can easily be figured out in a clever or original or clean way, and instead gets blurred to hell and back while we, the viewers, are unduly bombarded with false endings, shaky imagery, and flashbacks ad nauseum.  After investing the time it took to watch this film three times in an attempt to gain some understanding of what was being thrown at me (and then a few more times afterwards to get suitable film images for this review after my first disc proved problematic), in the end I'd say that it's only a half-worthwhile experience somewhere on par with The Eye 2 for its cheapness and false scares, or the American version of The Grudge for showing me things I've already seen a hundred times from the Japanese.  As Taiwanese horror fare goes, this is probably in the top tier of their current repertoire, and its original ghost-story is (outside of its lacking presentation) a really clever idea, so it's definitely done well to become a new sort of ambassador to that region's previously mostly-unknown repertoire of horror films.  But in the vast annals of extreme Asian cinema, you can no doubt find a more fulfilling ghost tale to tide you through the night from another Eastern shore; Taiwan is not yet the force that Hong Kong has become, but I will definitely give The Heirloom some points in edging towards the right direction. 

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment: 5/10 
Violence: 5/10 (but particularly unsettling at the end) 
Chills: 5/10 
Gross-outs: unborn children/10 
Sex: none/10 
Acting: A surprisingly strong 8/10 
Ending: a total cop-out, and I restrict my use of that term most reviews, but by goodness I'm standing for none of it, Heirloom
Penpals: are dirty liars!! 

Films in a Similar Style: Inugami, Double Vision, Ju-on, Ghost System

*** Average Fare ***

Discuss this movie here at the Snowblood Apple Forums!

The Heirloom Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2007

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Leste Chen
Terri Kwan
Jason Chang
Yu-Chen Chang

Links

http://www.tartanvideousa.com/pg_films_det...43458%7D Tartan USA site for the release of the problematic region 1 DVD used in this review 
http://www.dvdactive.com/reviews/dvd/heirloom-the.html – Excellent DVD Active review that makes special note of the flashback and pixelation issues within the film 
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/horror/heirloom/heirloom.html – Another similar-themed review concerning baby ghosts (or the lack thereof) 
http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117928814?categoryid=31&cs=1&s=h&p=0 – Cut and dry "explanation" rather than review, that explains the real translation of the film in its native tongue (which explains the entire first half of the film) 
http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/theheirloom.php – A good review explaining the technical problems with both the film and the DVD release (heavy spoilers) 
http://www.beyondhollywood.com/?p=102 – Beyond Hollywood calls this film a "frustrating experience" and gives insight into the director's previous career engagements


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