Judge Joel Pearce blew out his disbelief suspenders watching this Chinese ghost story.
Every family has a secret.
Although I've been quite disillusioned by the latest crop of Asian horror, I keep coming back to the genre anyway. Heirloom proves to be a step ahead of the competition, thanks to an old-fashioned haunted house plot, downright stunning cinematography, and a creepy score. Unfortunately, it can't sustain it's initial momentum, as it eventually derails itself thanks to a few serious flaws.
Facts of the Case
James Yang (Jason Chang), a twentysomething architect, learns that he has been left a run-down mansion as an inheritance. Glad for the chance to reconnect with his lost past (his real estate agent informs him that it's complicated), he convinces his fiancée Yo (Terri Kwan, Turn Left, Turn Right) to move in with him.
James's real estate agent neglects to inform him that his whole family committed mass suicide in the house 20 years ago, as part of a strange and mysterious curse. It quickly becomes clear to everyone except James that this curse is alive and well, and that his 2600-square-foot inheritance may well kill them all. Yo begins her own investigation into the house, which leads her to a truth even more horrible than she expects.
On a technical level, Heirloom is impressive, especially for director Leste Chen's first effort. It draws conventions from haunted house stories, and builds a tale that's much more about style and tone than it is about plot and characters. It's easy to settle into the premise, because although we know we are headed into familiar territory, the house is unique enough to draw us in, and the family mystery is intriguing. The script is careful enough to give out details slowly, so we are never confused but there are twists right up until the end.
Visually, the film is a knockout as well. The color palette is dark, cold, and almost monochromatic at times, but highlighted by rich reds and purples. It gives the house a distinct personality, and uses objects well to piece together ideas and characters. Heirloom works as an art film even better than as a horror film, using deeply symbolic visuals to wrap viewers in a feeling of creepy doom. The sound design is impressive too, subtly rising and falling with the action. In fact, this is one of the most technically impressive horror films I have seen in some time. It matches films like The Sixth Sense and A Tale of Two Sisters for visuals, which is very high praise in my books.
For the most part, the performances are excellent as well. Terri Kwan does much of the work carrying the film as Yo, striking a fine balance between scared, inquisitive, confident, and uncertain in her new life with James. As the film develops, Yo becomes more important as James sinks more into the background. We sympathize with her. For her, horror film survival is not just about following the rules. She has tough life decisions to make, especially as things become more serious.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's sad when films have a fatal flaw. For the most part, Heirloom is a great film, and I should have enjoyed it a lot more than I did. Unfortunately, the film is haunted by its own ghost. James is a terrible character. In fact, he's one of the worst movie protagonists of all time. Although he is the character we meet first, the film progresses with him almost entirely in the background. He adds nothing to the story until the end, and by then we have stopped caring about him. He is the recipient of the family curse, and he is no more part of the story than the haunted house.
Jason Chang's performance isn't inspiring. Some actors try their best with an underwritten role, making the best of a bad situation. Chang simply moves back and forth between mild apathy and pathetic whining. The biggest mystery in the film is how such a bland loser ended up with an attractive, confident woman like Yo. I feel bad dismissing a film because of a single problem, but it's a big problem that impacts every section of the film. Maybe James really is cursed.
The script has a few other minor problems. It's hard to believe that James doesn't know his whole family committed suicide when he was around eight years old. Has he never been curious about his childhood? Why would his real estate agent know more about his history than he does? The mass suicide of the richest family in the area would generate a lot of public interest, and news stories like that don't just vanish. Questions like this kept wrenching me out of the film, which is exactly what a horror director doesn't want. A horror film should be a film that you can't distance yourself from, no matter how hard you try. If halfway through a movie you just can't engage, something is wrong—especially when the picture is so technically accomplished.
The DVD from Tartan Films is of mixed quality. The video transfer is disappointing, thanks to some severe black level issues, blatant edge enhancement, and compression errors. This is a beautiful film, but even owners of small TVs will notice the flaws here. The sound is much better, whether you choose the overzealous DTS track or the cleaner Dolby 5.1. The mix across the front of the sound stage is dominant, though there's a bit too much separation between the channels. The rears are used rarely, but add a good level of creepiness when they do kick in. The LFE channel is used quite a bit to reinforce the bass in the soundtrack. In terms of extra features, the disc includes a commentary track by the crew. An interviewer runs the session like a reporter, firing questions at various crew members in rapid succession. I find it hard to sit through subtitled commentary tracks, and this was no different. There is also a production featurette, which gives away most of the film's major plot twists. There are a few deleted scenes as well, but many of them are outtakes, all strung together on a reel with no explanation or discussion.
Considering that this is Leste Chen's first feature film, I remain optimistic. Heirloom has enough atmosphere for two horror films, and features several surprisingly mature decisions. Chen could prove to be the next Asian horror master, but will need to iron out some minor problems first. As for this film, Asian horror fans should give it a try, though they will likely not want to give it a second viewing.
Guilty, yes, but not cursed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Crew Commentary
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