Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ghosts (2002)

A small group of doctors and nurses has been ordered to set up an emergency hospital in the most blue-coloured and Gothic part of China to ward off a not clearly defined plague of some sort (whose effects the film never shows, by the way).

Obviously, the best place to set up a hospital is a Catholic monastery that isn't exactly full of monks anymore. Still, there's Manfred Wong (Niu Piao), the abbot(?) and at least two other monks and a mute maid (Wu Meng-Meng). The film is as unclear about the population of the abbey and their positions in their order as it is about a lot of other things, so don't expect anything to make much sense.

Anyway, Manfred turns out to be the ex-boyfriend of the chief doctor, Angel (Li Xiao-Ran), and also to be quite in the grip of religious mania, supposedly charismatically ranting and raving a lot about his little talks with god. Manny also likes to hang himself on a cross and get whipped. Angel's fiancée or husband Ben (Nie Yuan), a psychologist, isn't too keen on Manny or his religion. He and the other members of the medical team don't like the abbot(?) any more when they learn that he has driven the local villagers into the belief that only God and not science can save them from the plague. Of course, they aren't willing to accept medical help now; a fact the film only tells us, instead of showing it.

So the doctors don't have much to do besides committing an overabundance of practical jokes and making fun of Manny's religion. Until, that is, a guy in a ghost mask begins to murder people. Oh my, whoever might he be?

Ghosts is one of the few mainland Chinese horror films I have been able to see, but I can't say it's a very good ad for mainland China's films of any genre.

Director Agan has made quite a schizophrenic concoction. The film tries to be at once a generic and clichéd slasher film, a Gothic melodrama and a propaganda film warning against the evils of Catholicism. Alas, it only succeeds in the first part and its dubious promises of illogically acting characters getting killed by some masked dude or the other.

Visually, Ghosts is really quite fantastic, at least if one likes slickly filmed and very blue Chinese variations on classic Gothic filmmaking, photographed with class and style. It is quite unfortunate that not much else about the film is slick or well done. The main problem is Ghosts' terrible script that seems to have been written with the new-fangled principle of "tell, don't show" in mind.

A truly absurd number of important plot points are just talked about instead of shown. Outside of one (rather lame) religious ritual, the film never shows us any of the villagers our heroes are supposed to save, making it quite difficult to care about their refusal to get treatment or the supposedly bad hygiene of the place.

Also only assumed but never shown is Manfred's incredible charisma. The film tells us early and often how magnetic he is supposed to be, but looking at Niu Piao doing his ranting and sweating schizophrenic bit and believing him to be charismatic are very different things. His growing influence on Angel is another aspect of the film that just doesn't work - there's just not the sort of chemistry between the actors to make it believable, and the script isn't setting their relationship up in any emotionally or logically believable way, again preferring telling to actually showing.

And then there's the anti-Catholicism. Now, I'm personally neither the biggest fan of religion at large or Catholicism specifically, but I was still quite annoyed by the direction the film took in this respect. When a movie is trying to demonstrate the evils of religion it should probably bother to either use the actual dogma of a given religion instead of random made-up shit or at least try to understand what its enemy is about, instead of basically doing a variation on the "Jews are poisoning wells" technique that has come down from the Dark Ages to Hitler. There is of course also always the possibility to just make up something batshit insane, but that's for movies that don't take their anti-religious stance as seriously as this one does.

There are only a few things apart from the visual slickness which recommend Ghosts, mostly short bursts of random strangeness (for example in Angel's short dream of a ridiculously winged Manfred) that always promise to take the film into a more creative direction, but which are never followed up on.


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