Attacking the nature of perception with unique style and aesthetics unique to the cultural foundation of their art, Asian horror finds new masks for ancient fears, allowing us to see both the world around us (and our own dark selves) in ways as beautifully macabre as they are undeniably horrifying. Unfortunately, the stylistic innovation and serious themes which lent such freshness to Asian horror cinema has of late degenerated into a cycle of self reference and parody similar to that which raped our home-grown efforts decades before. Laboring beneath the now cliché burden of longhaired spectral wraiths seeking revenge and grudges, Asian horror is in danger of cannibalizing its own dark heart.
Not so with The Heirloom, an atmospheric attack against cultural expectations and cinema tradition. When the Yang family hang themselves in the mysterious estate where they have long prospered and conspired against their enemies, using black magic (and the blood of their infirm) to bring life to demonic baby corpses, one member of the clan survives. Settling into the shadowy resonance of urban folk belief, the murder is unsolved years later when a relative inherits the blood-stained house, hoping to establish a family with his fiancée. It seems that something in his home (and in his blood) has its own designs as increasingly shocking and emotionally painful events of supernatural nature interweave with the couple's surfacing mistrust. As friends are found mysteriously hung and the sinister origins of a family legend are revealed, doubt and dread disturbs the tranquility of once placid lives, and our heroes are forced to not only battle threats from without but, more dangerous, terrors from within. These characters are ghosts, of a sort, already.
Focusing on a mass suicide which occurred in an ancestral home several years in the past and the family which must come to terms with horrors every bit as much engrained in their subconscious as in the halls of a spiraling old mansion, this fear-fable is both a modern translation of the Grand gothic sensibility and a sensitive character study. Combining the everyday horror of alienation with the mythic resonance of our species' contradictory fear and fascination with the unknown, Heirloom is scary in both its gorgeously captured surface action and in its less transparent but more profound subtext. Examining familial obligations and the deadly influence of both blood and history on new relationships, this spectral echo of eternal reoccurrence and vengeful spirits is just as much a condemnation of greed. Even more intriguing is the director's depiction of a man's desperate attempt to end a generations old evil -- even if it means destroying that which he most loves. A thoughtful horror film that will alienate those weaned on MTV editing and the plot-less plots of modern cinema, this self-reflective nightmare takes time to establish characters and a setting described with enough emotional depth to lend it the persona of a character in its own right. Besides the Yang ancestral home, haunted by memories, ghosts, and baby fetuses, perhaps the most significant character is time itself, particularly as the script explores with such reverence the emotional effect that the past exerts on the present.
Director Leste Chen is a poet of the subtle shadow, an artist capable of investing lurking details in scenes which at first appear as insignificant as character's first apprehensions. Appealing to the surface pleasures of sensationalism as well as to the more intellectual demands of sound storytelling, Chen is an unacknowledged surrealist. Investing within a paranoid tale of identity and personal effacement the instability of relationships, Chen's eye for effective camera set-ups is as sharp as his ability to couch effective performances from the cast. Summoning ghosts with the help of his audience, provoking us to make meaning in his malevolent universe. Fans in search of nothing more significant than a quick BOO! shock may well be put off by the film's refusal to yield it mysteries with the simplicity too often apparent in homegrown horror, but the lover of emotionally challenging, intelligent fear films won't be able to help admire the labyrinthine twists of plot and subtleties of character.
So very disturbing because its thoughtful plot, adroit performances, and sleepy, haunted atmosphere questions not only a reality cracked but the very question of whether or not there can be any normalcy. And that's just the thing -- decency and our fragile human moral judgments have little baring in the course of the universe, and little effect in this movie. If most ghost stories achieve their terror by attacking the everyday, Heirloom denies that there is a common experience. Instead of depicting the spiritual torment of people who deserve their fate through some misstep, here we see innocent people attacked by the supernatural through no fault of their own. They, in effect, did nothing to deserve this. Being 'good', living decently, is no promise against evil.
The visual quality of the presentation proves the fondness with which the fine folks at Asia Extreme approached this tale of ancient rites and cursed bloodlines. Shot in widescreen and enhanced, the picture lacks significant surface blemishes, grain, or interference. Colors are strong and vibrant, allowing you to appreciate the gorgeous locations, seductive camerawork, and atmosphere that wraps its subversive dark pleasures around the audience with as much strength as the back-story dictates plot. Audio is equally satisfying, captured in Dolby Digital and DTS Surround Sound 5.1 in Mandarin with optional English and Spanish sub-titles.
Extras include an intriguing track (with optional subtitles) with the director and lead cast, which covers a wide range of particulars concerning the production, filming techniques, and philosophy. This is followed by the more nuts-and-bolts "The Making of Heirloom," a featurette that, while created, it seems, primarily for publicity, offers a sound review of the movie-making process. Also including a subtitle option, this mingling of interviews lends further social and aesthetic perspective, as do the deleted scenes which, if not necessary, are certainly enjoyable. Particularly intriguing aspects of the featurette are the director's interpretation of the premise, a tour of the house, a look at the 'suicide scene', and the overall set design. A surprise trailer for the highly anticipated DVD release of Sympathy For Lady Vengeance proceeds the film. Last is a trailer for the feature and spots for Pray, Marebito, Natural City, R-Point, and Ab-Normal Beauty.
Review by William P Simmons
|Released by Tartan Asia Extreme USA|
|Region 1 NTSC|
|Extras : see main review|