Tuesday, January 26, 2010

In short: Bless This House (1988)

After twenty years of toil for his company, an architect whom everyone calls "Uncle Bill" (Bill Tung) finally seems to have hit a lucky streak in his life. Not only does Bill's young and dynamic (yes, this does translate to "highly unsympathetic") boss promote him, he also allows him to move into a large, company-owned home.

Bill and his family - wife Sau-Lan (Dik Boh-Laai), older daughter Jane (Rachel Lee aka Loletta Lee) and little Yan-Yan (Chan Cheuk-Yan) - are at first absolutely delighted by their new home. Soon, however, the first problems with the dream home become all too apparent. The family could probably live with the fact that the house is way out in the boons, or that their closest neighbour is a mad one-eyed guy (Bruce Leung) living in a half-ruined temple who likes to sprout rather unhelpful yet dire warnings.

The family of ghosts sharing their living space is quite a different thing, though. At first, those rather unfriendly sub-tenants are only scaring away Jane's annoying boyfriend Biggie (Stephen Ho), but they are working their way up to bigger things like hoover possession and compelling Bill to sing peking opera parts in the cellar. The final goal of all the spookiness is (of course!) to let the living repeat the family tragedy that killed the ghost family.

Usually, I avoid comedies like ghosts avoid the ashes of holy men, but I just had to make an exception for Bless This House, or more precisely for its director Ronny Yu, who made a handful of my favourite Hong Kong films and is one of the few directors from there whose US films are also at least worth watching. Well, most of them, anyway.

Yu is such an exception to my (only half-real) "no comedy" rule, that I have even found myself laughing about some of his films.

And I did in fact laugh more than once while watching Bless This House. The main reason why the movie's humour worked for me is Yu's avoidance of the two least likeable elements of Hong Kong comedy - a nasty disposition (at its worst displayed in Wong Jing's conviction that rape is really funny) and an over-reliance on slapstick. This is not to say that Yu's film is completely lacking in physical comedy, he is just using it a bit more sparingly than many of his peers, which seems to me an excellent way to keep it funny instead of exhausting.

Yu also shows every symptom of actually having empathy with his protagonists, even when he puts them into highly undignified and agreeably silly situations. The film's heart seems to be in the right place.

Bless This House is also a film that shows its influences as a horror comedy (Sam Raimi, Chinese vampire movies, you know, the obvious) with pride and enthusiasm without becoming a mere copy of them.

As far as I know (and as I said, I don't know much about comedy or your strange human "humour"), though, good comedy succeeds or fails mostly by virtue of its timing and pacing, and it's these points where Yu's talent really comes through beautifully. The film escalates (and regular readers will probably know by now how big I am on escalation) nicely from harmless sillyness to the sort of sillyness that could kill its protagonists, as it well should in a horror comedy, but isn't so nasty to refuse its viewers the appropriate happy end.


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