Appellate Judge Tom Becker thinks a vow of invisibility might be good for a marriage.
How far will you go for the one you love?
'Til death us do part…
Facts of the Case
Shanghai, the 1930s: After a disagreement, filmmaker Junchu (Leon Lai, Fallen Angels) sends a note to his lover, radio personality Manli (Bingbing Fan, Sweet Revenge), telling her he wants to propose. Manli leaves the radio station on her bicycle and hurries through the crowded streets to meet him. The lovers see each other, lock eyes—and then, a car hits Manli, killing her.
A year later, Junchu is still inconsolable. His mother has tricked him into marrying Sansan (Rene Liu, A World Without Thieves), a sweet, quiet woman. Unfortunately, still grieving and bitter about being tricked, Junchu despises her. They live an uncomfortable life under the watchful eye of their housekeeper, Aunt Rong (Songzi Xu, Shi Qi).
One day, Sansan goes into a room Junchu has forbidden her to enter and finds personal items that had belonged to Manli. Sansan feels a presence, and suddenly finds herself face to face with the spirit of the dead girl.
Manli tells Sansan she means her no harm, but she sees how sad Junchu is, and she misses him too. Manli has tried to go to Junchu, but her touch makes him ill. Manli asks to inhabit Sansan's body for a short time just to be close to Junchu again.
Sansan agrees. Junchu doesn't know what's going on, but he starts feeling closer to Sansan. Even when Manli is not inhabiting her, Sansan tries to make herself more like her late rival.
But as Sansan soon learns, making a deal with a spirit is like making a deal with the devil.
An eerie and melancholy ghost story from China, Matrimony is short on scares but long on atmosphere. Beautifully shot and acted, this is not a horror movie by any stretch, though it does contain a fair share of suspenseful moments.
Sansan, Manli, and Junchu form an odd and tragic triangle. Despite his treatment toward her, Sansan genuinely loves Junchu; there's also more of a connection between them than Junchu realizes. For his part, Junchu seems to resent Sansan just for being alive; his entire existence without Manli is misery.
The two women couldn't be more different. Manli is accomplished, sophisticated, and vibrant—red is her color, and when she contacts Sansan, she literally descends to the frightened young woman. Sansan is timid, naïve, and demure. Even before Manli appears, Sansan is more like a ghost than the dead girl, whose presence is everywhere.
Both women seem concerned only about Junchu's happiness, and they form an almost sisterly bond. Manli coaches the innocent, yet slowly receptive, Sansan on how to be more appealing to Junchu—mainly, by being more like Manli. It seems to work: Junchu and Sansan grow closer, he begins opening up to her, and it looks like they might have a future. It never occurs to Sansan that his change of heart isn't because he feels warmer toward her, but toward a person she's pretending to be.
But Matrimony is a ghost story and, ostensibly, a horror movie; while there's been an eerie feel to it all along, at this point, Director Hua-Tao Teng decides to go for scares. It was inevitable, but, unfortunately, it feels more like an inevitability than a natural progression.
It's kind of a shame—the "horror" segments are the weakest parts of the film. Characters do things that make little sense and have little connection to what we'd seen before, and the whole thing, so spooky yet charming up to this point, starts to feel typical.
But the film does toss us a ringer at the end, an ambiguous but strangely satisfying little coda that suggests Teng might have been more interested in playing a metaphysical card than telling a love story or a ghost story all along.
I've seen Matrimony compared to Hitchcock's Rebecca, which makes sense on some levels—timid new wife trying to live up to the image of more flamboyant predecessor, creepy housekeeper who knows more than she's letting on, gothic atmosphere; all those elements are here. But unlike Matrimony, Rebecca had a central mystery and surprising denouement. Matrimony actually reminded me of another atmospheric fantasy film from the '40s: Curse of the Cat People, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise.
While the story might be a bit slight, the performances are strong, particularly from Fan and Liu. Additionally, the film looks absolutely beautiful, with exceptional work by cinematographer Ping Bin Lee (In the Mood for Love).
The disc, from Tartan, is a decent affair. The 1080p image looks good, though there's intermittent print damage. It's nothing too distracting, just the occasional odd nick that was likely part of the source print. The transfer is otherwise quite nice; with deep blacks, solid colors, and a good amount of depth. Audio is an unexciting Dolby mix with a choice of 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo. For supplements, we get interviews with the actors, director, writer, and executive producer, and trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is not an effects-driven film, a fact that actually adds to its charm. Unfortunately, the few times effects are employed, they're none too good. Particularly egregious: Manli's car accident in the opening minutes, which looks like it was created for a Nintendo game in the '80s rather than a feature film in the 21st Century.
Haunting, intelligent, and ultimately quite lovely; Matrimony is a mature and challenging supernatural fable. Definitely worth checking out for those who like their spooky stories more of the arthouse variety.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
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