Produced by the brothers Wang - China's answer to the Weinsteins - and released in Mainland China on Valentine's Day, The Matrimony was just pipped to the post by Li Shaohong's The Door (which hit cinemas on 18 January) for the title of 'China's first commercial horror movie'. But The Matrimony is the first of the two to be seen in the West - it played at the Udine Far East Fest in Italy before travelling to Tribeca - and as such it has the kind of rarity value that makes it a cineaste collectible.
A rather tame but nevertheless enjoyable supernatural thriller set in 1930s Shanghai, The Matrimony is unlikely to kickstart the C-Horror revolution; we've still a way to go before the Chinese censors greenlight the Beijing version of Ring or The Grudge.
But this is a well-crafted period piece. It may lack slasher thrills, and there's only one bona-fide jump-in-your-seat moment, but there are other reasons to keep watching: good pacing, lush photography, tasty performances from the three leads, and an ability to meld ghostly visitations with a vein of social, women's melodrama - never fully developed a la Douglas Sirk, but interesting as far as it goes.
In Asian markets this should see some active service, though most will consume it on DVD. Outside of Asia, The Matrimony is a fairly niche proposition, despite its glossy production values.
In a big, gloomy house in the woods on the edge of Shanghai, uncommunicative cameraman Shen Junchu (Leon Lai) lives with his young wife, Sansan (Taiwanese actress and singer Rene Liu).
The reason he's so morose is that he's still devoted to the memory of another woman - vivacious Xu Manli (Fan Bingbing, star of Cell Phone), a radio host who we meet at the beginning of the film, in a prelude that sets the 1930s jazz-age Shanghai scene, sketches in Manli's passion for Junchu - and ends in her death in a car accident (marred by some bizarre and inadvertently comic special effects) as she runs to meet him.
Back in the present, a few years after Manli's death, Junchu has retreated into his shell; he has married Sansan to keep his domineering mother happy, but feels no love for her. He's depressed, and prey to strange asthmatic attacks.
Backstory flashes reveal that Sansan was a lowly seamstress, and bourgeois Junchu seems to hold this against her: in fact, when we first see her anxiously ministering to Junchu at dinner, it's not immediately clear whether she's wife or servant. Even the real servant - the superstitious, unsettling Rongma - appears to treat Sansan with contempt.
But the girl has pluck, and it's not long before she's exploring the locked room where her husband spends so much time - the one, of course, where she's been told never to set foot. It's here that Junchu keeps the furniture and belongings of his lost love - including a radio which has a habit of broadcasting her shows, even when it's unplugged.
Manli is an unquiet ghost, and when she eventually appears to the fearful but courageous Sansan, it's to propose a woman's pact: if Sansan allows Manli to possess her, to enter her body, she will be able to help Junchu.
There's humour in this ghostly invasion - the confident lost love gives the timid new wife a sort of spectral makeover, working from within - but also a degree of pathos, as we see Sansan caught between delight because her husband has finally started to notice her (and even take her out to the movies), and the awful suspicion that she only has Manli to thank for this.
The ghostly apparitions are nicely subdued: Manli hovers just above the ground, but apart from that and her rather pale complexion she is more woman than spectre. Lee Pingbing's camera moves slowly in classic thriller mode, sometimes adopting Sansan's point of view.
Colour is used effectively - the dark green of the windswept forest around the isolated house, the deep red of the dress that Manli wears, Sansan's ink-black pupils, which seem to dilate to the point where there's no white left.
Music too stresses the refined, measured nature of the exercise: the period jazz, the lilting classical chords, the slow electronic waltz.
But just when The Matrimony is getting really interesting, with the warped eroticism inherent in the idea of an old flame possessing the new wife so that she can sleep with her lover again, it pulls back and opts for horror conventions instead of psychological depth. And the happy ending is frankly ludicrous - it feels like it was put in as a sop for the censor.
Production company/international sales
Huayi Brothers Pictures
based on a story by Sheng Zhimin